1. On history shows. OK this one I do hate in all instances and at all times. It’s when you’re watching a show about astronomy and some scholar from Harvard says, “What Galileo does next is quite extraordinary. He believes that the earth revolves around the sun. He is convicted of heresy. He is subjected to house arrest. And there he makes some of his most significant discoveries.”
Unless one of his discoveries was how to travel in time, Galileo did not do those things as we speak. Talk of his heresy began in about 1616, and in about 1633 he went under house arrest, where he remained until he died in 1642. 2000-something minus 1600-something is about 400, so the Church was most unkind to Galileo in the past about 400 years ago.
2. In books. This second instance has more to do with where I am in my life, my reading, and my preferences right now, and could change. But at the same time, I have a history of finding the present tense cold in books, so maybe this won’t change. Time will tell, but the phenomenon struck home again recently when I was reading Under the Tuscan Sun.
I’ll start by saying that that book is written with exceptional beauty. Frances Mayes is an astounding poet. And though this sentence is written in the present tense, I drank it in again and again:
I sleep like one newly dead every night and dream deeply harmonious dreams of swimming along with the current in a clear green river, playing and at home in the water.
Every time I read that sentence I make a drooling sound like Homer Simpson daydreaming about donuts.
Something about the consistent use of the present tense made me feel, as I read the first chapters of the book, that there was a disparity between the warm richness of poetic construction and what struck me as the cold clinicalness of the present tense.
One object of writing in the present tense is to convey immediacy—in-the-moment sensuality. I fall in love with Tuscany, I find a house, I buy the house, I renovate the house, I experience the food, the climate, the beauty, the history.
But I’m thinking you found the house, you bought it, you renovated it, and to this day you experience the food, the climate, the beauty, the history.
Even magnificent descriptions don’t suspend my disbelief that the past is occurring in the present as I read.
And somehow, despite its immediacy, the present tense feels removed to me, or not quite right. “We walk through the hills and then we grill a steak for dinner.”
Specifically I think it’s the form of the verbs that bugs me. Say I’m in the act of washing the dishes. I might say “I’m washing the dishes.” But I wouldn’t say “I wash the dishes.” Say we’re taking a walk. I might say “We’re taking a walk.” But I wouldn’t say “We walk.”
Yes. That’s what it is. That’s what made me put Under the Tuscan Sun down for now. But I hope I can get over my problem with the present simple form someday, because that book is well worth reading for its descriptions, its sensuousness, and its reverence for beauty, history, and soul.
Margaret Atwood also sometimes writes in the present tense (I say “writes” because the world has the good fortune that Margaret Atwood is alive). And her books, too, can feel cold to me sometimes, probably for two reasons:
1. Her books are about deeply human things, and they illustrate that the human experience is not always kind. Take The Handmaid’s Tale. Offred uses the present tense to describe her life in the Commander’s house, reserving the past tense for memories and flashbacks.
Again, the present tense feels cold—or it felt cold to me when I read the book a long time ago. That said, the tone is necessarily cold because the story is intensely dark and dystopian. So there’s a function to the coldness, but I can’t say I like it—though I don’t think I’m supposed to, because what’s there to like about the totalitarian Republic of Gilead?
2. As a child Atwood accompanied her father, who was an etymologist, on research projects in the Canadian wilderness, studying insects. That might be another reason for sometimes-coldness: In their pursuit of facts, scientists often aim to be objective or detached. I don’t believe it’s particularly possible for humans to be very objective, but objectivity is an objective of the scientific method.
Like Mayes, Atwood is a wondrous poet, and when I think of poetry I always think of warmth and richness, though warmth and richness are by no means required elements of poetry. In some ways it seems surprising to me that poets (sensualists, aesthetes) would be at times frosty, but of course there are as many functions of poetry as there are emotions, experiences, individuals, and themes that require different tones.
Years ago a customer at a cafe I used to work at gave me a copy of Neal Stephenson’s Snow Crash. “You have to read this,” he said. “You will love it.”
So I started it, and I was immersed in action, and it was funny, and there was savory, wry social commentary, and everything going for it, but I still wasn’t 100% into it, so I put it down. Recently I picked it up again, and got further into it, but not super deep—and then I realized: This is written in the present tense. Is that what my problem is?
Now if any novel should be written in the present tense, it’s Snow Crash, because it’s movielike. It rockets into action instantly, and you feel like you’re in a movie. You feel like you’re surfing the ‘ment with YT. And it’s about virtual reality, so that present tense makes you feel like you’re in the Metaverse with Hiro Protagonist.
But once again I found myself not super into it, and I decided that even though the present tense felt right for the story, it was also kind of bugging me because I’m like the Princess and the Pea when it comes to the present tense. Or like Goldilocks when it comes to books in general at this time in my life: “This porridge is too cold; this porridge is too hot; this story for children about magic and 1950s innocence is juuuuuuuuuust right.”
There are exceptions for me. You’ll notice that I’ve used the present tense myself in this post from time to time. “You’re watching a show……” “Offred uses….” “It’s written……” etc. These uses read fine to my ear. What gets to me right now is an entire story or chapter told in the present tense. Sure, there’s value to the immediacy thing, but I’m much more—at this point—with you if you tell me a compelling story in the past tense. Maybe Half Magic, Great Expectations, I Capture the Castle, and Julia Child’s My Life in France happened in the past, but I experience the stories with the characters/people in my present as I read because the writing (and, somehow, the tense) draws me into the moment regardless of when the events actually occurred.
Image from tonynetone.