September 17, 2012

Reading with a Sense of Immediacy: The First Person Present Tense

I remember a time in the not-too-distant past when coming across a book written in the present tense was like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack. Perhaps present tense stories weren't quite that rare, but they were definitely not a commonly used narrative technique. In the past few years, however, I've noticed an interesting trend as this narrative technique continues to grow and gain popularity. By stopping and thinking for a second, I'm sure that the majority of Young Adult fiction readers (and perhaps even many Adult fiction readers) can name at least one book off the top of their heads that uses the present tense as the narrative technique of choice.

I'll admit that it baffled me when I first started reading books written in present tense (generally first person) with increasing regularity. I need to first explain that I tend to prefer more formal writing styles. Third person limited and omniscient are my favorite narrative techniques, although I'm becoming more accustomed to first person. Obviously first person is better able to draw you into the protagonist's mind than third person is. But I've always been a fan of third person narratives for that reason – I like being more of an observer in the stories I read. I enjoy that bit of distance, the chance for the author to show readers the bigger picture, which gives me an easier time analyzing the book. I can understand why many people enjoy the first-person point of view, but it's not my personal preference. It's a little harder for me, however, to understand love of the present tense, which I’ve only seen in first person. For me it almost feels stifling. I have a harder time seeing the big picture (which I realize may be intentional on the part of the author). I sometimes find myself feeling overwhelmed by the fact that everything is happening right now.  

The increasing use of the present tense, specifically the first-person present tense has made me wonder about its origins. What about our current society has led to its prevalence and continued use? Is it possible that Suzanne Collins' incredibly popular The Hunger Games is partially responsible for this literary trend? After all, it was The Hunger Games that helped popularize the YA dystopian novel, and that is a fad that is still going strong. As stated in this New York Times Opinionator piece, “Staging the Self: ‘The Hunger Games,’” Stanley Fish believes that protagonist Katniss' adventures are appropriately told through the first-person present perspective:
"Of course, in Panem, everything is a staged event, given that everything is seen by a nation-wide audience. And yet, in the midst of a relentless theatricality — Katniss is continually being made up by cosmeticians — everyone is hungry for the genuine. That is why it is so important for Katniss to simulate it, to give the people what they want, and what they want is to believe that the simulated is the real.

"It is what we want, too. The present-tense narrative has the effect of creating the illusion of immediacy and as readers we fall in with the illusion, especially at those moments when the characters we are invested in engage in what feels like intimate conversation. But then the curtain is drawn back, and we realize what we had momentarily forgotten — that we are watching not reality, but a huge reality show, a pageant of bread and circuses, Panem et Circenses."
If we are to agree with Fish here, then Collins specifically chose this narrative technique to convey her story. In other words, she believes that having Katniss narrate in the first person present tense added another essential layer, one that was necessary for the story itself. His article continues to discuss the questions Collins raises about the self and reality, and clearly he believes Collins’ use of tense helps further those examinations.

In addition to this very successful YA trilogy using the first-person present tense, it should come as a surprise to no one that now, more than ever, we live in a society centered around instant gratification and immediacy. The independently organized TED event TEDxBrighton explores ideas of a Generation of Now, a generation that thrives on the sense of immediacy. What can give reading a better sense of immediacy than by creating a book in the present tense?

The first-person present tense definitely has the potential to fuel our society's desire for immediacy, since everything is happening now, without delay. The first-person present tense allows us to not only enter a protagonist's head, but the protagonist's life as he/she is actually living the events of the novel. In this respect, nothing beats the first-person present tense in terms of feeling real and raw, perhaps even giving us a stronger emotional identification. I think it's difficult to argue with the fact that the first-person present tense gives readers the most intimate way in which to experience a novel.

As with all changes to established norms, however, harsh criticism on this tense abounds. In an article written for The Guardian, Philip Pullman expresses his many issues with the use of this tense. One of Pullman’s dislikes about “the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness.” He argues that our languages are crafted with a variety of tenses, and that authors should be more varied in their tense use in books than simply the present tense. A more compelling argument of his is that by writing only about the immediate in a narrative, the author loses some authority and power over his own text. He claims that it is “an abdication of narrative responsibility.” A bit harsh, perhaps.

Pullman’s opinions built on those already proponed by author Philip Hensher. Hensher’s opinion in the Telegraph is actually in response to the 2010 Man Booker Prize shortlist which featured an equal amount of books written in past and present tenses. Not only does Hensher believe the present tense to be a fad, but also a “horrible cliché” that used to be used discriminately but has recently gained prevalence.  

Laura Miller delivers a different type of opinion piece for by stating that "the present tense is only one among any number of crutches clung to by mediocre writers." In other words, Miller believes that the use of the tense by itself is not a problem as much as the writers who choose to work with this tense without knowing how to utilize it effectively. As I mentioned earlier, there are definitely books out there that have used the first-person present tense very well. But should the authors who manage to successfully utilize this narrative perspective provide a basis of justification for so many writers, both new and established, to write in this tense?

Although there are many reasons why the use of the simpler, immersive, and more vivid present-tense narration makes sense, this narrative technique is not without its flaws. If we were asked whether the use of the present tense signifies bad writing, I should hope that most people would undoubtedly say no. But does the use of the present tense come at the sacrifice of some other important storytelling aspects, and are those changes more extreme when using this tense? That is not something anyone can so easily answer.

In my opinion, I think that the cons outweigh the pros, especially now as it its use seems to be evolving from more experimental and deliberate actions on the authors’ parts to an increasingly common narrative tense. While I will not necessarily avoid reading books written in the present tense, I know that I, for one, will continue to critically examine how and why this tense was used since for now it is not part of the narrative norm. Once the present tense has a more established place among narrative techniques used in literature perhaps, I, too, will come to enjoy it. But for now I'd like to wait and see how it continues to be used.

What are your thoughts on the (first-person) present tense in books? Do you think it's simply a fad or a trend that will continue to gain strength in the literary marketplace, and is it one we as readers should encourage? Are there any books you've read that you believe utilize the present tense well?

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Amanda loves few things better than sitting down with a cup of tea and a book. She frequently stays up far too late, telling herself she just needs to finish one more page. When she's not wrapped up in the stories of others, Amanda works as a children's librarian in a public library.

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