Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Present Tense

Alec Cizak was asked an indirect question in the comments section of a recent post and I found the answer too good to end there. The question: "What [is] AC's problem with present tense?”

Mr. Cizak answered:

Austin, everybody has their pet peeves about writing. Mine is present tense fiction. I know it's popular. It's become more and more acceptable over the last twenty years. I just can't read it. When a piece of fiction is in the present tense, I feel a wall between the story and me.

Another way to put it is this: Stories written in the past tense allow for reflection. It's like a nice big body of water inviting me to jump in. Present tense is like jumping in and finding out it's not water but, rather, a piece of glass that won't break.

I put that in the guidelines so people know what my particular pet peeve is. One last comparison-- I first noticed that Playboy was publishing stories written in the present tense in the mid-90s. Right about the time reality television started showing up. I said, at the time (about both), "It's a trend. It will go away." Neither has. Writers, especially younger writers, love to write in the present tense. Reality television is even on Bravo and A&E. People love it. I'm the old bastard who can't stand it. I've heard all the reasons for writing in the present tense and I'm not convinced. It just feels cold to me. Luckily, most editors aren't as picky in that area, so writers of present tense fiction have nothing to worry about!

Speaking of, I put my feelings on the matter into a flash fiction piece that is supposed to appear in a print journal some time soon now. The story is called "Presently Tense" and it's about a character in a present tense story who stops the action and admonishes the author for refusing to give his characters the opportunity for reflection.

Ultimately, we must say, to each his or her own.
I'd like to open this discussion up and see what other folks think. I, for one, find myself agreeing with AC.

25 comments:

Evan Lewis said...

I've seen some first-person present tense stuff that's effective because it reflects the narrator's character. But in third-person, it reads like a synopsis (which I hate) and I rarely make it past the first few paragraphs.

Cullen Gallagher said...

Like with any narrative device, if it is going to be done, it should be done well. I've certainly read some annoying Present Tense stuff, but in all those instances it seemed more to do with the writer not being comfortable with the form, or not knowing how to use it effectively. That said, when it doesn't work, the Present Tense can stick out like a sore thumb. On the other hand, if a writer isn't careful, a story set in the past can drag.

Looks like I'm on the fence! I suppose I'm just willing to go along with either form (or another, should the writer choose), as long as the writer can do it well.

J.P. Donleavy's THE GINGER MAN (!955) was in First Person and I thought it was superb. Never bothered me for a moment.

John Updike's RABBIT, RUN (1960) is also in first person and I couldn't finish it. That's also because of Updike's personality. Maybe it was just because I read both books back to back, but I couldn't help but feel that Updike was trying to Channel some of Donleavy's spirit and style. Maybe I'm totally off on that observation. Either way, Donleavy's book became one of my favorites, while once again experience taught me why I stay away from Updike. He may be great--and plenty of people whose tastes I respect love him--but he's just not for me.

David Cranmer said...

You are probably right that it comes down to the talents of the writer. And it seems that few can pull it off.

Chris said...

I wrote my first novel in first-person present tense. I felt (and still feel) that I had sound story reasons for doing so.

Forever ago now, I wrote a piece about writing in present tense on my blog. The gist was, present tense is a tool. Imagine a shaky handheld camera shot, as opposed to the steady dolly shot of past tense. Like those two camera techniques, there's a time and a place. But they're both tools to tell a story, and, used properly, either can be effective.

Nik said...

I get submissions in first person, third person and sometimes both variants will be in the present tense. Yes, it can work. It's not my favourite form of storytelling, but I won't close my mind to it. I've just accepted a romance set in Italy in the present tense and it worked very well: I'm seeing the beauty of the place and the people at the same instant as the narrator. One of my editors turned down the job as she didn't like the present tense. No problem. We're not forced to read it, after all. It's down to personal choice.

David Cranmer said...

Chris, And I'm not a big fan of the shaky handheld camera. I get you though and it comes back to the quality of the writing. Did this novel come out? Or will be? I'd be interested in reading.

Nik, What are you doing here? Shouldn't you be working on a certain western noir that is going to rock the jukebox? Just kidding, amigo. I'm glad you stopped by and I concur that its all down to personal choice.

Ron Scheer said...

Didn't present tense get a big boost with Raymond Carver? It was almost his trademark. For me, it went well with the off-beat mood in his stories... Present tense also has a long oral tradition. In colloquial storytelling, the narrator often slips from past to present to ramp up the sense of immediacy... I'm OK with present tense unless it seems like a needless affectation.

pattinase (abbott) said...

As always, in the right hands it can be exhilarating, putting you right in the action. But it can also be cloying, a plea for sympathy.

David Cranmer said...

Ron, I hope this doesn’t spread far but I’ve only read one story by Carver. I know, I know that’s a sin for a short story writer.

Patti, Very well said.

Ron Scheer said...

I read the Collected Short Stories years ago and some really stick with you. Now, of course, we can't be all that sure what was Carver and what was his editor... Altman's SHORT CUTS is a nice tribute. Also good is an Aussie adaptation of one of his darker stories, JINDABYNE. His poetry rewards a pull off the shelf now and then, too.

David Cranmer said...

Carver is considered to have revolutionized the form. Another is Charles Bukowski who I am reading now.

AC said...

Ron, I think the controversy about Raymond Carver was caused by his minimalism. I've read the majority of his stories and am actually re-reading the collected works right now and have yet to come across a story written in the present tense. Carver's bare-bones minimalism gets on the nerves of a lot of old school literary folks who believe a paragraph is worthless if it isn't a page and a half long. Again, it's a matter of personal preference, I suppose.

Austin Carr said...

It's the way a lot of people -- cops in my particular experience -- tell their stories. "So I go in the door with my weapon drawn, and there's this eight-year-old watching TV ..."

It's not much of a big deal to change from present to past, maybe AC will get something from TFA anyway.

David Cranmer said...

AC, Have you read Bukowski? Minimalism is the name of his game. Incredible writing. Like he's the son of Hemingway with a wicked need for sex 24/7.

A great example of Austin's work can be found here:

http://www.beattoapulp.com/stor/2010/0718_jg_ToolOfTheTrade.cfm

David Cranmer said...

Ah heck it cut off the url. Its in the BTAP archive under Jack Getze.

Charles Gramlich said...

I prefer to read past tense stuff but a talented writer can pull of present tense. AS for writing, I find that present tense produces great narrative drive but makes it hard to develop characters and to pause for the asides that really enrich a good novel.

Alyssa Goodnight said...

The story idea sounds great! :)

I personally like fiction in first-person present tense--I think it lends an immediacy and pulls the reader into the story. Not always, of course, but when done well, I think it can work beautifully.

David Cranmer said...

Charles, "but makes it hard to develop characters." True.

Alyssa, I guess you have the general take of everyone here that when done well its fine or even great. Miss the mark and its worse than a dirt sandwich.

AC said...

David, yes, I've read Bukowski. My horrible movie Mr. Id was inspired greatly by his loving tribute to the pulps called...Pulp. The most serious paper I wrote for my Master's degree compared Bukowski and Carver, arguing which writer's "dirty realism" was dirtier. Remind me to tell you about the teacher I did my observational teaching with in L.A. who used to hang out with Bukowski (it's not a family-friendly story...)

After all the debate here, I've decided to remove the present tense stipulation from the guidelines for Pulp Modern. I don't want anyone to be discouraged from submitting a story.

David Cranmer said...

I'm looking forward to the non-fam tale, Alec.

I'm saving PULP and HAM ON RYE for last. Loved BARFLY the movie. I'm savoring all the short stories again. Just a real tremendous powerhouse of talent and so obviously influenced by Hemingway.

Which writer's "dirty realism" was dirtier?

AC said...

David, in my paper, which was intentionally "controversial" (as academic papers are supposed to be), I argued that Carver was too steeped in middle-class concerns to be considered "dirty" realism. Bukowski's "realism," however, was so harrowing it almost warranted a new term, such as "terrifying realism." I was very subjective in which stories I used as examples. There's a Bukowski story called "Life and Death in the Charity Ward" in which he describes being taken to a hospital in L.A. after his stomach bleeds for a while and he is put in the section with all the poor people and, at one point, kicked out before he's barely been treated. Few writers have ever gotten that down and "dirty." I can send you the paper if you like. Just remember, it's academic, so it's 10 percent thoughtful and 90 percent b.s.

While the paper was critical of Raymond Carver, I ended up with a greater appreciation for his work after writing it. The stories he wrote right in the middle of his career are his best. Not too much, not too little. As for Bukowski, any time life seems too much, I pick up "Tale of Ordinary Madness" or "The Most Beautiful Woman in Town" and remind myself that things could be a lot worse.

David Cranmer said...

I'm reading a short story a night from SOUTH OF NO NORTH. Stories that really linger with you. I can't say enough good about the man's extraordinary gift of writing. Brilliant.

Yeah, I'd love to read the paper.

Cullen Gallagher said...

I've wanted to revisit Bukowski lately. He was a big influence on my writing when I first started. You'll love Ham on Rye. Perhaps his best novel (though they are all worth reading).

AC said...

I think my favorite Bukowski book is Women. Ham on Rye is pretty good, though. Funny and tragic.

David Cranmer said...

Damn I wish he was still writing.