13 September 2010

Why are there so many novels and histories in the present tense?

There was a complaint in Saturday's Daily Telegraph that really struck a chord with me - not because I'd noticed the growing use of the present tense in novels, but because I've long been baffled (and irritated) by its routine use in historical programmes on radio and television.

Here's how the problem was reported in the Telegraph:

Leading authors have criticised the Man Booker Prize shortlist because half of it is made up of novels written in the present tense.

Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher claimed that the use of present tense is becoming a cliche.
Pullman, the best-selling children's author, was scathing over its use.

He said: "This wretched fad has been spreading more and more widely. I can’t see the appeal at all. To my mind it drastically narrows the options available to the writer. When a language has a range of tenses such as the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect, each of which makes other kinds of statement possible, why on earth not use them?"

He added: "I just don’t read present-tense novels any more. It’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy."

The six authors listed for this year's prize are Peter Carey, Andrea Levy, Howard Jacobson, Tom McCarthy, Damon Galgut and Emma Donoghue. The first three authors' novels are in the past tense while the others written in the more "fashionable" style.

Hensher, whose novel The Northern Clemency was Booker shortlisted in 2008, said that writers were mistaken by thinking that using the present tense would make their writing more vivid. He said: "Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift in tense won't do that for you."

History in the present tense
A few days ago, I heard a programme on BBC Radio 4 that told us:

"Londoners are preparing themselves for the blitz..." Er, yes the were doing that in 1940, but are not, thankfully, preparing themselves for it 70 years later.

Then, on a BBC television programme over the weekend, we heard (or should I say "we hear"?) this from Charles Hazelwood:

"Mendelssohn visits London for the first time in 1829 ... over the years he becomes a close friend of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert..."

And you'll soon be able to hear about the past in the present tense every week with the return for another season of Melvin Bragg's inappropriately named history of ideas programme In Our Time (i.e. In Their Time Long Gone By).

Why do they do it and what's the point?
What Pullman said/says of the present tense in novels - "It’s a silly affectation, in my view, and it does nothing but annoy" - is exactly how its use in historical discussions strikes me.

Are media historians making the same mistake that Hensher suggested/suggests novelists are making "by thinking that using the present tense would make their writing more vivid"?

Or has there been (or is there?) a decree from some style-supremo at the BBC that speakers must speak about the past in the present tense?

As licence-fee payers, I think we have a right to know - but I have my doubts about anyone will ever bother to tell us.

1 comment:

Hadleigh Roberts said...

You'll find that using the present tense for these purposes is completely normal in French. The "Story Telling Present" is often used, I suppose, to put you in the action of the scene being told.

Yes, historical facts "happened", but if you haven't told them to somebody, then they haven't quite happened in the story, especially if you're setting up the context.