Who's asking: Peter Johnson, London
Elvis Costello sings it in "Brilliant Mistake": "I wish that I could write a book/And talk in the past and not the present tense..." but more and more novels these days are being written in the present tense.
I've mentioned before that I have trouble with this. Present tense works for short stories and magazine articles, but it's very difficult to pull off over an extended narrative. It's probably the single biggest piece of advice I give to my first-novel clients who bring me present-tense novels: don't.
The problem with present-tense narration is how you convey information that happened in the past, particularly if you're writing from something broader than a narrow first or third-person point of view. Past tense? Past perfect? Pluperfect conditional?
I can't point to a single reason we're seeing so much more of this, but I have a few theories. First, present-tense narration feels immediate and emotionally engaging, which is why it does work well for short stories -- action's moving, the reader's with the narrator from the beginning, experiencing what the narrator experiences in the literary equivalent of real time.
Second, people read more magazines than books these days, and magazine articles are often written in the present tense. When people who don't read many books sit down to write books themselves, they model their prose on what they read or watch -- which, all too often, are magazine articles and intrusive voiceovers from cheesy movies.
In rare cases where an author's a good enough writer to sustain present-tense narration over the length of an entire novel -- as in Theresa Schwegel's books, for example -- the best the author can hope for is that the reader stops noticing the present tense after reading a page or two. Thus, the writer's setting himself or herself an unnecessary challenge before the reader even begins.
So I'll say it again: if what you want to do is engage your readers, why make it harder for yourself and them?
If you're a writer working in the present tense, tell us why you do it.
Five Random Songs
"Can't You See," Marshall Tucker Band. Six minutes of classic Southern rock, and the flute makes all the difference.
"(Don't Go Back to) Rockville," R.E.M. The practice of putting portions of song titles in parentheses is something else that's always baffled me. Insights into this phenomenon are welcome.
"Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band," The Beatles. This album came out 40 years ago last week, and I read a bunch of articles suggesting that it hasn't aged well, or that it might not be as iconic as people thought, or that Pet Sounds is a better album. To all of these articles I say: I beg to differ.
"Creeps Like Me," Lyle Lovett. One of his grimmest, funniest songs. "Look around and you will see/This world is full of creeps like me/You look surprised, you shouldn't be..."
"If I Had My Way," Peter, Paul and Mary. Paul, I think, was signing copies of his new book at BEA, but I never saw him in person.