Reviews

‘A marvellous entry in this excellent series, one of those books that  you have to keep reading but hate to finish. Highly recommended.’ [Stage Fright]

- MYSTERY WOMEN

Present tense? It’s happening right now!

Posted on Feb 20, 2016 in crime fiction, Present tense, Wolf Hall | 19 Comments

The other day I was browsing in a bookshop and picked up a crime novel that has been well reviewed. I opened it and it was written in the present tense. Back it went on the shelf. It was the same with the next one I looked at. Is it just me, or are more novels written in the present tense these days? I have a real prejudice against this. It isn’t that I absolutely won’t read one written in the present tense, but my heart sinks when I see it and it is a barrier to be overcome. It has put me off reading Wolf Hall – though eventually I may get round to it.

True, I have written in the present tense myself – but only in a  couple of short stories. I quite like the present tense for a short story – though there too it can be overdone. For a novel the past tense comes more naturally to me. It seems more logical: the events of the story have happened in the past. They are not happening right now as they are being recounted and as one reads. This kind of immediacy is of course what is aimed at with the present tense and as with all fiction it is a matter of suspending one’s disbelief. I just find it harder with the present tense. I’d love to know what other readers – and writers  – think.

 

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19 Comments

  1. Will
    February 20, 2016

    I’m with you on this Chrissie. And it’s only one of several reasons why I gave up on Wolf Hall. A book that’s clever is terrific, but it’s no compensation for being too damned difficult to read. Why should it be hard work for me? I’m the customer. I don’t care how many prizes a book has won.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 20, 2016

      Lovely to hear from you, Will and I applaud your forthright views. On the whole I agree: it’s the writer’s job to make you want to read on. And by the way some synchronicity here as just this morning I was thinking of that bike-ride: could do with some blazing sunshine at the moment.

      Reply
  2. Sue Hepworth
    February 20, 2016

    I completely agree, Chrissie. My heart sinks in exactly the same way. I’m not saying I would never read a novel narrated in the present tense, but I would always prefer the past tense.
    But even worse are columns written in the present tense. I actually have to grit my teeth if I want to read them. Usually I don’t bother.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 20, 2016

      A column in the present tense! Isn’t there something a bit pretentious about that? Glad it’s not just me. I do wonder why writers are going in for it so much.

      Reply
  3. Sheila
    February 20, 2016

    … and they do it with historical programmes on the TV. For example stuff on BBC4 about events long ago tends to be narrated in the present tense now, which I find very irritating.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 21, 2016

      Yes, you are spot-on! It’s also annoying when they say ‘He would’ when they just mean ‘he did.’

      Reply
  4. tracybham
    February 20, 2016

    I have the same prejudice against present tense. When I find I have already bought something written in present tense I am disappointed but willing to read it anyway. I know that there are books written in present tense that I have enjoyed. (The Last Policeman trilogy by Ben H. Winters), but I still haven’t gotten over my aversion.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 21, 2016

      Yes, this is exactly it. It is a barrier, but not necessarily one that can’t be surmounted.

      Reply
  5. Lyn
    February 21, 2016

    I usually dislike present tense in novels but I’ve been partly converted by Elly Griffiths. I almost gave up on her first novel because of this but I enjoyed the story so much that I persisted. I’ve just read her latest novel &, after the first page, I didn’t even notice what tense it was written in, I was reading so fast. I also loved Wolf Hall so maybe I can’t say that I dislike present tense anymore!

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 21, 2016

      I think it’s as you say: it has to be an especially good novel for me to stop noticing. Interesting that everyone who has responded doesn’t like the present tense.

      Reply
  6. Moira, Clothes in Books
    February 21, 2016

    It doesn’t bother me all that much: I would prefer past tense, but can live with historic present. (I know it bothers others more). All the same, I really don’t understand why it’s so widespread now. You never hear of anyone who actually prefers it do you?
    Wolf Hall I do think there is a reason – it emphasizes that we all know as much or as little as Cromwell as he makes his way through history – this is not written with hindsight. You must read it – in my important view, the 2 books are the best of this century.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 22, 2016

      Yes, I can see how this would work – and in fact one of the short stories that I wrote in the present tense was set around 1600. I know you rate Wolf Hall highly and for that reason I shall get to it sooner or later.

      Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 22, 2016

      Another thought. Do you think the present tense has got more prestige for some people, is regarded as more ‘literary’?

      Reply
      • moira @ClothesInBooks
        February 28, 2016

        I always assume writers think it makes their work more immediate and, I don’t know, tense? atmospheric? Not literary so much. But who knows? Do publishers like it do you think…? I am really interested in all the views above and below – you touched a nerve.

        Reply
        • Christine Poulson
          February 28, 2016

          Yes, interesting that people feel so strongly about it. Rather ironically I have just finished a short story in the present tense. It just seemed right – and it was something to do a sense of immediacy.

          Reply
  7. Naomi
    February 23, 2016

    I can’t bear said books. It’s not a prejudice, it’s a dislike. I too return a book to the shelf if it’s written in the present tense and am amazed when this important fact isn’t disclosed in a positive book review.

    Thought of as being more literary? Possibly, because it’s so unnatural and forced that some might erroneously consider it so.

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      February 23, 2016

      Thank you for commenting. I am finding it so interesting that this post has attracted such strong responses – and that everyone is more or less in agreement with me. Writers, take note!

      Reply
  8. Deborah Mainwaring
    April 4, 2016

    Ah, don’t give up on Wolf Hall! It is a splendid, riveting read with a beautiful, pitch perfect voice, once you get the hang of it. I count this as one of the most satisfying renderings of an historical character I’ve ever encountered. Try again!

    Reply
    • Christine Poulson
      April 6, 2016

      Lovely to hear from you, Deb. As you rate it so highly (as do others whose opinion I respect) I will give it another go sometime.

      Reply

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