Monday, 13 September 2010

Tensing Up

Philip Pullman recently made a rather silly statement criticising the use of the present tense in the Man Booker Prize shortlist. According to him, it is a "wretched fad" and "silly affectation."

Aside from the image of Pullman as a crazy old man shouting at people in the public library, his intervention seems spectacularly pointless. If there has been a rise in literary novels written in the present tense, shouldn't the Booker Prize reflect that? I mean, I'm almost certainly not going to read any of the nominees, but I don't go off on one in the media complaining about the amount of linguistic farting-around or lack of "proper story." Not that they'd probably take any notice of me...

Fiction is a broad church, and we should allow for all techniques and points of view. If some people choose not to read any books written in the present tense, well that's their loss. It should be a case of using the technique that best serves the voice and the story, no more, no less. My suspicion is that the increased use of the present tense has been triggered by the information rush that we face daily over the internet, a rush that Pullman may be shielded from as he works away in his garden shed. The world has become a little overwhelming and I think fiction should reflect that feeling of immediacy and being in the moment. The present tense might not technically be the best way to write fiction, but since when did technicality make a story breathe?

I'm going to keep following this wretched present tense fad for as long as it makes my books exciting, disorientating and alive with possibilities. And if I find a story that works better in the past tense? Well, I'll just switch to that outdated old warhorse and you won't hear a peep from me about it.


Edit - Pullman has clarified his views in a much better argued piece here. And he acknowledges that present tense is claustrophobic - which is exactly why I use it!


  1. I completely agree with you. There is room for everyone!

  2. What an intriguing idea, that present tense has become more prevalent because of our own daily information rush. Also love the image of Pullman puttering away in his garden shed. So true. =)

  3. Ah your posts are so refreshing and I do so agree....besides which i don't properly understand the imperfect or pluperfect tense. They scare me.

  4. I had a downer on the present tense until I tried it myself, and then, oh boy It just flies along!

  5. Anne - it actually says that on the back of my copy of The Amber Spyglass: "Philip Pullman lives in Oxford, where he writes all his books in a shed at the bottom of his garden."