‘Fiction’s Ever Present Danger’ was first published in Spectrum, January 2011
The present tense is in danger of being abused in contemporary Australian fiction. Too many of our current writers are over-using this most useful of tenses, with a result that their narratives, instead of being lively and ‘immediate’, are in danger of becoming flattened out, less interesting than if a variety of tenses were employed – past, present, past perfect and future.
Over the past couple of years, Australian novels that have come my way, to review for the Sydney Morning Herald and the Canberra Times, have included a historical novel, Fiona Capp’s Musk & Byrne; Vertigo by Amanda Lohrey; Stepping Out by Catherine Rey; and Dissection by Jacinta Halloran – all written overwhelmingly in the present tense. Each of these novels has its own excellent qualities, which I commended in my reviews, and had each been the only one written in the present, I might have felt no unease. As it is, a sense of unease has been growing gradually, concerning a fashion that could too easily become the norm. One novel I did not review, but which seems to me to exemplify many of the pitfalls resulting from over-use of the present, is Rocks in the Belly by Jon Bauer.
Bauer’s debut novel has been widely praised. A letter to reviewers, accompanying the advance reading copies, refers to being ‘captivated by the immediacy of the prose’ and praises the distinctiveness of the different voices, one an eight-year-old boy’s, the other belonging to the man he has become. But to me the voices were barely distinguishable, and reading the novel felt like being asked continually to hop on one leg. I put this down largely, if not entirely, to an over-use of the present tense.
Why relinquish or severely curtail the interplay of tenses? The gain often cited is immediacy; immediacy puts the reader right there, in the middle of the action, from page one to the end. I think this is a false view, a confusion of the foreshortened perspective with readerly involvement. Immediacy has to do with time. It suggests that the characters are Up Close And Personal and that the action is happening now. But the ‘now’ in fiction is always a false now. Even in the moment of reading about it, action belongs to the past. In my opinion, writers who avail themselves of a variety of tenses are better capable of transmitting an understanding of this – one of the basic tricks of narrative – than those who restrict themselves to the present.
Concentration on the present can result in the opposite of what’s intended – a curtailing of intimacy and a reduction of its scope. Up Close And Personal has meaning by comparison with Not So Close and Not So Personal, with, in other words, a considered, measurable distance. Where to retreat to, and how, when the present tense is unrelieved, or relieved so seldom that its power and closeness are felt as overwhelming? Immediacy is not a synonym for intimacy, though the two often seem to me to be conflated. Intimacy in fiction, I would argue, can be slow or fast growing, can be presented as right here now, or take a whole book to make itself apparent. I think the confusion arises from the perceived wish of the reader to identify as closely as possible with the characters, as though this were inarguably a good thing. I say ‘perceived wish’ because I recognize that readers possess innumerable different and conflicting tastes, and because I believe that editors and publicists, along with writing teachers and reviewers, play a not insignificant part in the shaping of fashion.
It is by no means self-evident that the present tense involves readers more, or more quickly, than the past, or a mixture of tenses. Stylistically, it makes for a deal of clumsy footwork if a writer can never simply say, that was then, this is now. Then there is the effect of always using the present, instead of the past participle, particularly in cases where the participle has to do the work of the whole verb. Looking to see which way he goes. is one example. I don’t mind the occasional verbless sentence; nor am I arguing that Looked to see which way he went. would always be a preferable alternative; but it seems to me that, when sentences like the former proliferate in a narrative, when they become the norm, the impression is created of a character forever in the middle of an action which has no hope of completion.
It is very common, and has been since the first novels in English, to begin with the present tense, then move into the past. This is. That was. The fact that this is – and more than the fact, the whole being of it – becomes a consequence, not only of what was, but how, and why and in precisely what manner. Thus the framework that an interplay of tenses provides at the beginning of a novel signals not only the ways in which narrators present themselves to readers, but to their creators, and to time as well.
Moby Dick begins with ‘Call me Ishmael’ and Melville keeps to the present tense for almost the whole of the first chapter, then moves into the past in order to look forward. ‘By reason of these things, then, the whaling voyage was welcome; the great flood-gates of the wonder-world swung open, and in the wild conceits that swayed me to my purpose, two and two there floated into my inmost soul, endless processions of the whale, and, mid most of them all, one grand hooded phantom, like a snow hill in the air.’
In one of Marcel Proust’s paragraphs describing the hawthorn hedge, he blends together the imperfect, the past perfect subjunctive, the future and the present. David Malouf’s 12 Edmondstone Street is written with an at times Proustian delicacy and sensitivity to tenses and the gaps between them. It begins thus: ‘Memory plays strange tricks on us. The house I lived in as a child is no longer there. Like most of old South Brisbane it has been torn down and a factory stands on the site, part of a process that had already begun when I first knew the area more than forty years ago.’
Dialogue can often bring readers closer to fictional characters and involve them more closely in the story. How wonderful to be reading a page of dialogue, pause for breath, and recollect the speed with which your eye has followed spoken words, hearing them with the inner ear. But if you are already slap-bang up against the characters, how much closer can you get? And here comes the danger of hyperbole, of over-writing, because the reader’s attention, having been grabbed from page one, must never be allowed to swerve.
The past tense makes more allowances for, is kinder to, tricks of memory and its inevitable mistakes. The movement between past and present contributes its own meanings, which become part of the narrative as a whole. Over-use of the present squashes out such spaces for meditation; it has no time for them. The gaps, even the contradictions between tenses, are a precious gift. They should not be filled by action, or characters demanding to be heard. Gaps provide the space for doubt and ambiguity, and a certain kind of respect towards our concepts of time which, when followed and reflected on, leads to a respect for death.
So what can I say in conclusion: that I have an in-built mistrust of the present and prefer old fogies like Marcel Proust? My answer would be no. I am arguing for a corrective, a pause in the rush towards grasping experience as though only the present mattered. I accept that new generations of writers must find new and different voices, and in the main I applaud them for it. But I also sound a warning. There will always be a fine line between the experimental and the prescriptive – today’s experiment becoming tomorrow’s fashion and the next day’s rule. Don’t overdo the present, or you may find that the great services it can offer a narrative are diminished for lack of a comparison, or even lost.