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Wednesday, November 03, 2010

Tension over Tenses

Literary prizes normally seem tame affairs. Well, at their outset, perhaps. This year, the Booker prize seems to have attracted controversy as various authors debated the use of present tense. (Three of six books listed on the Man Booker Prize are written in present tense.)
Admittedly, I have yet to read any of the Booker prize books in question. But the debate did get me to open several of my books stacked at my bedside. I was seeking out their tenses. I wanted to figure out if I have preponderance to present tense books or to past tense books...or if I had even noticed. In the debate, present tense is considered more "fashionable," although it has been used for centuries.
I know I've tried to carry off present tense in some of my fiction and find it much more difficult. The immediacy present brings to a scene often dissipates the nuances I like in using past tense. But frequently I've been won over by my characters wanting to speak in present tense. In those instances, I try to let the story tell itself, without criticizing it for being in present tense. Just as a story of mine might lend itself to a certain point of view more than another POV and only trial and error (read: revision, revision, revision) will tell. Unfortunately, I don't believe I'm as skilled at writing in present tense as I am in past tense.
It was mentioned that maybe the use of present tense comes from creative writing classes. Maybe so. But I've found that I may have practiced and learned various crafts and techniques in my MFA classes, but, as a writer, I need to stick with what works. Right now, past tense works for the stories I’m trying to tell and it’s what I will gravitate toward.
However, the debate certainly makes me want to seek out these books and take the present tense writers for a test drive.
What about you? How do you feel about the present versus past tense debate? Are you feeling any tension one way or another?

Elizabeth King Humphrey is a writer who lives in North Carolina.

1 comment:

  1. Like you I tend to write in past tense as, I think, that's what I've been brought up on. While I have dabbled in present tense I haven't read much of it and honestly don't find it that appealing (unless it's written exceptionally well) as often it jarrs with the story being told.


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