A writer friend, doing the last big revision of her new novel, emailed to ask me what I think of present tense narratives. She's used it for the main-frame structure because it's a story of urgency, pressure on the main character, and action, with excursions into the backstory in past tense. But a couple of her trusted readers have said they don't like it and think it would work better all past tense. It does seem to be a matter of taste, but equally that suggests that tense has a fundamental effect on how the story is read. Since I've been known to say I, too, dislike purely present-tense narratives, my friend asked me what I thought. And this is what I found myself saying:
"I'm not mad about whole novels in present tense, put it that way - and I do think it's largely a taste thing. I sometimes say that a solidly present-tense narrative makes me feel I'm being tapped repeatedly on the head with a teaspoon for the length of the novel. If there is a central problem, (and as the extract from A Secret Alchemy demonstrates, I use it myself and I don't think it goes without saying that there is a problem) it's that present tense is by definition unreflective. Because it's all present, there's less sense of even the past that happened on the previous page. It's just tap-tap-tap... one event after another. So although it can be quite thriller-ish, I sometimes also feel that the immediate past slips away for the reader as well, and to that extent you actually lose urgency, rather than gaining it, because you lose the pressure of those previous events on the characters, which is what ought to be propelling the story forward. In A Secret Alchemy that's appropriate, for the sense that Anthony, particularly, has been cut off from his past and any agency of his own, and has no apparent future: he's been told he's riding to his death. And perhaps it's appropriate for Una, who flies in to close down her English past at the beginning of the novel, and intends to fly away again at the end.
"But mostly I think it's that fiction is always about time and memory, at some level: not only does the experience of reading the book happen in time, but the story needs to exist in time - its own time, and the reader's - and if it's all present tense then you lose that: it's just a series of nows, if you see what I mean, no past underpinning it and no sense of the future ahead. Maybe that timelessness suits a contemplative character, who moves between past and present, trying to map and understand 'now' in terms of 'then'. But most characters aren't like that: they were and they will be, as much as they are. The only other kind of narrative where it can be very effective is as an interlude, or one strand where the immediacy and lack of context are just what you want: I know I've read some very successful books which use it like that, but have gone brain dead and can't think of any novels, successful or otherwise, except my own. I don't know if you remember The Mathematics of Love, but the only bit of that which is in present tense is Stephen's series of nightmares/memories at the end of each chapter, for exactly that reason - I was after a hallucinatory effect.
"Practically speaking, you may want to use it as you have, when the novel is structured round a shortish 'now' skeleton, when a lot of the action, as it were, slides fluidly to and fro between 'now' and 'then', and it's easier to keep the reader on track without slabs of the pluperfect or whatever they call it these days: 'I thought back to the past and remembered how I had had to go and see if he hadn't had the letter...' Not just Antony's but also Una's strand in A Secret Alchemy have this 'now-then' nature, but in revisions I did pick up several places where I'd unconsciously slipped into past tense for a sentence or two of 'now' bits, as if it was still more natural to tell the story that way."
Since I wrote that, I've been wondering where this taste for present tense comes from. It's not that it's new: you can find it in Dickens, after all. But I've been surprised to see conversation among aspiring writers which suggests that present tense is a new orthodoxy (can you hear me grinding my teeth?) Partly, perhaps, there are now at least two generations of would-be writers who are thinking in terms of scriptwriting as much as fiction, and of course film - even flashbacks - is always, you could say, in present tense. But more generally I wonder if it's one of the bastard tyrannical offspring of the revolution against the authoritarian author - not just the technically omniscient narrator, but what Gardner calls the 'essayist' novelist, whose opinions are explicitly stated, rather than implicit in the story and how its told. If a past-tense narrative at least implies a narrator retelling the past, it also implies their authority to tell it. Whereas present-tense narrative seems to be freer from any particular narratorial (sorry, horrible word) personality. This seeming objectivity is illusory, of course: in fact an author is always authoritative, and their personality forms the narrative just as a filmmaker forms the narrative of a documentary whether or not you see their decisions about what to film, or hear the questions they asked or the edits they made. Those events on film aren't happening now, any more than what's happening in a novel is.