01 October 2010

Present tense narration

I'm an avid reader of The New Yorker but I have seldom read their fiction. When I first tried it out I found the stories not particularly imaginative and a good half or more were narrated in the present tense. I read one or two of those and that was enough. A whole story in present tense is usually tiresome in the extreme. So from then on, as soon as I saw that the story in the new issue was in present tense, I stopped reading. I thought it was a sign of getting old on my part.

Then, last week, the New York Times carried a story on the UK's prize for Youth Fiction. The judges were complaining that half of the books submitted were narrated in the present tense. They said it diminished the quality of works they were judging. There was a small demonstration outside the place where the winners were announced. The demonstrators carried signs saying "What do we want? Past tense!" and "When do we want it? Now!" I had company!

Apparently present tense narration has hit a nerve. Right now I am about to finish Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club. She has a little present tense narration (not much) sprinkled here and there. I find natural. It helps to distinguish the moment of narration and what surrounds it from the stories about what happened in the past, which are the memories of the young Chinese-American women and their mothers.

So here's my take. Any good story, and certainly any book-length fiction should be narrated in past tense. Never use present tense unless there is a specific function for it and it contrasts with the majority of the work. There must be a very good reason to use present tense narration. It is not sufficient to say "It's the new thing" (it's not: it's around 100 years old and needs to be retired) or "It has greater verosimilitude (looks and feels and works more like real life)." Just what possible verosimilitude is there in someone telling you what they are doing as they do it?

Present tense narration was big with the modernists (Joyce, Woolf, Faulkner) who did stream of consciousness. An incredibly little bit of that goes and enormously long way. Enough, already.

A footnote: you should read the Scholastic report on reading habits and likes of families, available at http://mediaroom.scholastic.com/themes/bare_bones/2010_KFRR.pdf

See my website at http://strategicpublishinggroup.com/title/Angela1.html


  1. I agree; a little goes a long way.
    I'm also hearing about a story or two done in second person POV (You are standing on the street...) I can imagine that won't take off.

  2. Thank you so much for commenting, Cinette! Originality comes from the strength of the writer's convictions, quality of writing, and story-telling prowess, not confusion over POV, which is always the author's.

  3. This was very interesting. I had never thought about it before, but I do find it annoying. I'll be checking your blog more often.

  4. Jamie:

    Thanks for your comment. I will try to write more often on my blog. When I don't it's only because I'm a full time college professor. Please bear with me!