Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Enough with the present tense

The oddest things annoy me. One is this [insert creative phrases that would ruin my cuss-o-meter score here] trend of writing novels in the present tense :

She opens the letter. The handwriting looks familiar but she cannot place it. It is unsigned. "What's that?" asks Floyd. He puts down his gun and looks over her shoulder.

I used to love Patricia Cornwell's Kay Scarpetta mysteries. But sometime in the past few years she quit writing normal and started the whole walk-through thing.

(Well, OK, I also got sick of Scarpetta pining for Benton Wesley or Wesley Benton, or whatever her dreary mopey boyfriend's name is. Even emotionally-anesthetized psychiatrist Alex Delaware and his emotionally-unavailable eternal girlfriend Robin are functional compared to that pair. But I probably would've stayed with the series just because the plots are often interesting. I still read Kellerman's novels and no matter how much Robin irritates me, Kellerman never present-tenses his books.)

Present tense has ruined for me other books that I ordinarily would love. I like historical mysteries, lapped up Instance of the Fingerpost, which dragged for some people, heard about Crimson Petal and the White and couldn't wait to read it. Then I saw it was a walk-through. I put it back and moved on.

Why am I calling present-tense novels "walk-throughs"?. Because I think I have diagnosed the origin of this virus which is now running rampant through publishing. It's rooted -- just my opinion -- in gaming. Originally, in Dungeons & Dragons player manuals, then in guides for video gamers which include blow-by-blow "walk-throughs." Present-tense fiction is not a new invention, but it has mushroomed in the past few years, or so it seems to me. Something's up. I diagnose it as an attempt to sell fiction to gamers.

I never got into video games much, though I did find Need For Speed hysterically funny. But Larry did for awhile and I therefore have read enough game walk-throughs to see the similarity :

Enter the cave. Straight ahead, you see a door. Do not open it! Dick Cheney will shoot you! Look right. You see a freezer. Open the freezer and remove banded bundles of cash. Turn around and walk toward the curtained doorway in the far wall. Six trolls come through the curtain. Quickly throw blocks of frozen cash at them and escape up the silver ladder to your left.

Publishers may be seeking novels that they think may appeal to the gaming population. That's -- I grudgingly admit -- smart. Cultivating a market that's still going to have both pulses and disposable income in 40-50 years is smart business, and might even get more young people reading books.

Anyway, dislike of present tense fiction may be a peculiarity of my own, but it irritates the bejeezus out of me, and here it came again this week. I was ordering something for Larry and had a choice between paying postage, or adding another book to get the over-$25 free shipping. Yeah, I know, like I need more books. Well, anyway, I ran across Away, by Amy Bloom. It looked tailor-made for my taste; female protagonist on a journey through 1920's America. Raunchy, some reviewers warn, but I like dirty books I don't object to explicit passages when a novel has literary merit. Then I checked the text. Present tense.

Why this annoys me so much is kind of a mystery to me. 30 years ago Ordinary People really grabbed me, and that as-it-happens structure worked like a charm. But something changed. Now I want to be told what happened after it happens. First versus third person? Don't care, like 'em both. But the tense matters.

Do I like "knowing" that the events I'm reading about, fictitious though they are, are over before the author tells me about them? Do I find some feeling of security in that?

That's not it though. I can enjoy following an as-it-happens story if it's written in past tense. There must be a literary term for that. What I mean is, each passage is written as though it just happened, but as though the next one hasn't yet. Like this:

Chapter 4

Elizabeth walked into my office and threw a pie at me today.

Chapter 5,

This morning Bingley told me that it was Elizabeth's parking space that I stole yesterday.

It really is the present tense itself that bugs me.

I'm going to order Away and give it a chance, but I still wish more reviewers would mention this tense thing while they're earnestly telling us what to expect if we buy this book. Not all books have enough searchable text to reveal it. Sheesh, doesn't everybody understand that if it's important to me then it's just plain important?


Mike said...

At least your mystery writers are pretending things are happening in the present. Sportscasters have invented a tense I call the "historic present," which they use while watching replays.

"If he doesn't make that play, then Jones scores easily."

Combined with their utter ignorance of the difference between "may have" and "might have" when they are speaking in the past tense, it can make even a delightful intellectual pursuit like watching football an exercise in tooth-grinding.

I realize this phase of the problem may not be particularly high on your radar.

Nostalgic for the Pleistocene said...

It wasn't high on my radar, but neither was the may/might problem and it shoulda' been! I need to learn more about that and add the knowledge to my toolbox.