Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Le Guin on Present Tense

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On those rare occasions when I teach, I come down hard on the use of the present tense in fiction. I tell my students that it's off-putting and unnatural. I say that the past tense is the natural mode for storytelling. They look at me as if I'd just said, "Motorbuggies will never catch on."

I just three minutes ago ran across these words in Ursula K. Le Guin's collection of non-fiction, Words Are My Matter (she is reviewing a novel):

Present-tense narration is now taken for granted by many by many fiction readers because everything they read, from internet news to texting, is in the present tense, but at this great length it can be hard going. Past-tense narration easily implies previous times and extends into the vast misty reaches of the subjunctive, the conditional, the future; but the pretense of a continuous eyewitness account admits little relativity of times, little connection between events. The present tense is a narrow-beam flashlight in the dark, limiting the view to the next step -- now, now, now. No past, no future. The world of the infant, of the animal, perhaps of the immortal.

Word. The present tense has its place in fiction -- but that place is rare.

Here's the rule, and it covers all cases: Only use the present tense if there is some reason for doing so that justifies losing some of your readers and annoying others. (This rule goes double for future tense.) Otherwise, use the past tense.

Go thou, young writers, and sin no more.


And while we're at it . . .

Don't get me stared on the second person!


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16 comments:

MrRlnansel said...

Second person, present tense would be right out, then? I've used it, but only in the same way that Dutch camera was used in Batman on TV whenever the scene was in the villains lair.

Kevin Cheek said...

In the old Orbit anthologies, there were a number of stories written in second person, present tense. I found them mostly unreadable. I seem to remember James Sallis as a particular offender, but I don't have any of the old anthologies with me to check.

Of course, no one told Gene Wolfe it wouldn't work (or he refused to listen) when he wrote "The Island of Doctor Death and Other Stories."

Michael Swanwick said...

Anything can be done. Anything at all. But when you write in present tense or second person present tense or second person future conditional, you have to be willing to accept a certain loss of readership and a corresponding grumpiness in those who remain.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

Yes, yes, a thousand times yes! I used to enjoy reading YA until it was overtaken by the scourge of presnet tense.

Carmen Webster Buxton said...

That should be PRESENT tense. You see what a scourge it is!

TheOFloinn said...

But you wonder, as you ponder this advice, whether it is universal. "Perhaps," you think, "it may be conditionally true, much like a probability."

"Nonsense," said the traditional voice, in sterner tones. "The past is a more supple narration and aurally invisible -- in English. The narrative present was introduced to produce the effect that the abandonment of the French literary tenses had in French some decades back. It was then equally startling to French readers. Or so I was told."

"Ach," said the German, who was also present. "Every tongue has its conventions. I am discussing this last Thursday at the metro station. In German, we often use the present tense in place of the preterite or even the future in ordinary speech. It is all in what the listener is accustomed to."

The Russian is clearing his throat, and the others are fleeing the room.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

Second person present tense is rendered unreadable for me by my own interior voice exclaiming "no I don't!". Come to think of it, I've been having great trouble responding to a personal email from a friend which explicitly tells me what I'm thinking - perhaps I really don't like to be told.

Kevin Cheek: I've always wanted Gene Wolfe to write a story about two castaways on an alien planet, named Adam and Eve - because I think he could actually do it.

Michael Swanwick said...

Hell, I've written (and published) two Adam and Eve stories, maybe three. If Gene hasn't, it's only because he didn't see it as a challenge.

HANNAH'S DAD said...

I once asked on a forum where writers and editors hung out if Adam and Eve stories really did get submitted or if it was more of an urban legend or cliche. I was told they really do still keep turning up.

I wouldn't be averse to someone doing a nice fat anthology of Adam and Eve stories. It could be no worse an idea than some of the single topic anthologies we see.

Michael: which stories? I think I'm pretty familiar with your short fiction, but I guess I'm not so strong on all of the flash fiction. Also, I have a three second memory.

Michael Swanwick said...

"A Great Day for Brontosaurs" and the last story in "The Periodic Table of Science Fiction."

Kevin Cheek said...

Second to last story (says the pedant in me) "117. Ununseptium"

Lafferty also did a great Adam and Eve story with a con artist's twist, "In the Garden," though with a cringeworthy last line.

DanP said...

So much present tense in Asimov's and F&SF in recent years! A year or two back there was a story in F&SF that was part present, part past tense, followed by two stories in present tense --3 in a row, ok 2.5 in a row. I'm currently subscribed with Asimov's, and can count on 2-3 present tense stories per issue (off the top of head guesstimate). I'm annoyed with this trend; I'm with you and LeGuin on this.

Kevin Cheek said...

Forgive me, I feel compelled to quote Douglas Adams:

"The major problem [with time travel] is simply one of grammar, and the main work to consult in this matter is Dr. Dan Streetmentioner's Time Traveler's Handbook of 1001 Tense Formations. It will tell you, for instance, how to describe something that was about to happen to you in the past before you avoided it by time-jumping forward two days in order to avoid it. The event will be described differently according to whether you are talking about it from the standpoint of your own natural time, from a time in the further future, or a time in the further past and is further complicated by the possibility of conducting conversations while you are actually traveling from one time to another with the intention of becoming your own mother or father.

Most readers get as far as the Future Semiconditionally Modified Subinverted Plagal Past Subjunctive Intentional before giving up; and in fact in later editions of the book all pages beyond this point have been left blank to save on printing costs.

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy skips lightly over this tangle of academic abstraction, pausing only to note that the term 'Future Perfect' has been abandoned since it was discovered not to be."

- Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Gregory said...

My next novel REWRITE is my first in present tense because it's about living again through the same era. But I agree in general, while noting that sf opens windows for present tense use.

Gregory Benford

Kevin Cheek said...

But that's cheating. You bring the writing skills of being Gregory Benford to the task. Anything you write will be good, even if it's in second person plural familiar subjunctive voice. If I were to attempt such, it would be an unreadable mishmash, even if y'all of similar illustrious talents to Mr. Benford, Swanwick, Dozois, etc. would be able to pull it off with aplomb.

Michael Swanwick said...

It's not that present tense is unreadable. It's that it's less friendly to the reader than past tense. My thesis is that you shouldn't use it in fiction unless you have a compelling reason to do so. Greg wrote in present tense not to show off his chop but because he had a compelling reason.