Past or present tense?

Recently, one of my friends (on all my platforms) posted to an AO3 group of writers on Facebook about the topic of this post. I have been wondering for some time whether to abandon this particular FB group; almost every post either sinks like a stone through being too bland, or attracts such acrimony that it is unpleasant to read even when not involved.

My friend’s post was totally unobjectionable – she gave her reasons for liking and disliking some styles, and asked for other opinions. I was about to agree with her as I share her tastes, but then I read some of the immediate comments which were aggressive and unnecessary. For me, another nail in the group’s coffin!

The post discussed tense usage in fiction and I thought I would consider my own opinions and preferences.

Please bear in mind that I am fully aware that there are excellent mainstream writers who use predominantly present tense to great effect. This is not in any way intended as criticism either of them or people who enjoy what they write. It is simply exploring my own tastes – something, I think, I am entitled to do.

There has been what I would almost call an explosion, in very recent years, of the use of the present tense for sustained narrative. There are a number of possible explanations which include: trying new styles; trying to recreate the immediacy of film; emulating popular writers in various genres; writing in English that is not the writer’s first language.

It really is a very recent phenomenon. I had never come across it when I was growing up, forming my own tastes, teaching English, etc. I don’t recall any mainstream instances of it prior to 2000 – and perhaps not before the spread of social media. So it was something quite new to me, which of course is neither good nor bad.

However, I do find it very difficult to read – probably as a result of my own earlier experiences – and it is almost like dealing with another language, one I regard as not-quite-English. For this reason, I tend to avoid longer works in present tense. I don’t mind short passages, often used to create a sense of immediacy and urgency, and often very successful. Nor do I mind short stories or short fanfic, though when I have done beta work for fanfic in present tense I have noticed that the writers often get into almost insoluble tense usage problems when describing events that are in the distant past for the narrator/character.

What I personally dislike are whole novels told in present tense. The ‘startling’ effect of present tense is lost when 70,000 plus words are all in the present. Also, I do not wish to be catapulted into that kind of immediacy for that length of story; it makes me feel agitated at best.

Past tense is called the narrative tense because it is the traditional method of delivering a story to readers or listeners, and has been for centuries, in various languages. However, there is a tendency, especially among the very young, to tell their friends about things that have already happened using present tense. I am never sure whether this is a contributory factor in the rise of the present tense narrative in fiction or a result of it.

Whatever the reasons and whatever the merits, I suspect that most older people – those who grew up before the millennium – find present tense narrative hard to cope with. It might be that they should be more willing to embrace it and experiment, but tastes differ, and mine fall firmly on the narrative tense side.

I would be interested to hear what some of you think! You are more than welcome to disagree with me, even vehemently, but not to assume I am being either critical or hostile!

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