Archive for howard jacobson

I was writing in the past tense. Now, I am writing in the present tense.

Posted in Uncategorized with tags , , , , , , , , , , on October 13, 2010 by plumbobrainier

Ok, ok, it’s about four weeks behind the times, but the great thing about the present tense is that it’s always relevant. So, the two Phillips (Hensher and Pullmann) don’t like the present tense, the historical present, and have bemoaned its use in three of the six novels on the Booker shortlist. They call it an affectation, like screaming all the time, devoid of expressive nuance. Well, Jacobson’s ‘The Finkler Question’ won and that’s written in the past tense, so gli due Filipe should sleep soundly from now on.

I have been following the debate, sometimes intrigued, sometimes embarassed (The Observer absurdly and pointlessly recast classic novel openings in the present tense to demonstrate its inferiority, but in the most hackneyed of manners), but mostly with a paradoxical mixture of concern and quiet confidence.

For, you see, the novel I am currently working on, tentatively entitled ‘Raises No Dust,’ is written predominantly in the present tense.

One of the accusations levelled at writers who employ that dreaded mode/device is that it is a hallmark of Creative Writing courses, a cheap gimmick, a ploy to lend a sense of immediacy to a thinly-plotted, insubstantial work.


Is that why I chose it? Do I harbour subconscious suspicions that my novel is lacking in some way, and that it needed sprucing up by being given the narrative equivalent of go-faster stripes? Or was I influenced by a work that I had read, which used the present tense to startling effect? Or was it because MJ Hyland, a lecturer on my course, swears by it and has used nothing but the first-person present tense in all three of her novels, and I therefore thought my work would be more favourably second-marked? Well, no. Although that last suggestion would probably have been a good idea, if I hadn’t messed it up by writing in the third person instead.

I suppose I feel concerned, because it seems like writing in the historical present is a bit of a fad at the moment, and I don’t want to look like I’m jumping on the bandwagon. But, on the other hand, I am quietly confident because that tense just so happens to perfectly suit my subject matter. My novel is about an online relationship, the influence of the past on the present, and time counting down to a life-changing event.

I’ve just made it sound like a cyber-romantic thriller starring Keanu Reeves and his female equivalent (answers on a postcard for who that might be)…

In fact, it’s a tragi-comic novel about suicide, pregnancy, fidelity, internet forums and various thwarted and fulfilled forms of hope. The past tense would, potentially, treat the story and its world as closed off, neat and tidy, when, in fact, it is about messiness and unpredictability. I also like the challenge that the use of the present tense offers. It is a very cinematic way of writing. John Updike’s ‘Rabbit, Run’ (also written in third person present tense) is subtitled “A Movie.” It is this cinematic continuity that creates the challenge, because I find I have to be much more conscious about where I edit the action, otherwise I can end up describing everything in a kind of narrative approximation to real-time.

I can understand how reading the present-tense can be exhausting – it is often exhausting to write, but ultimately more rewarding to me than writing in the past tense has been.

It seems to me that the controversy, or hullabaloo, about the present tense is a load of hot air about nothing, really. If a novel is written well it doesn’t matter what tense it is written in.

I’ll post some links to the key articles about the whole big nonsense shortly…