From Darkness into Light

From Darkness into Light
From Darkness into Light by Dall'ombra Alla Luce courtesy of WikimediaCommons

Monday, August 15, 2011

On Present Tense

Present tense stories and, to a far lesser degree, second person POV are two techniques that seem to have found acceptance in recent years with editors and publishers. I think on both tense and POV, I'm going to agree with the magazine Beneath Ceaseless Skies who says it well in their submission guidelines: "We have a preference for limited points-of-view, first-person or third-person, because we find it harder for a story to get deep inside a character’s head from an omniscient point-of-view. We find present tense occasionally pretentious and second-person point-of-view always annoying."

I guess I bring this up now because I’m listening to book on CD written in present tense ("The Windup Girl" by Paolo Bacigalupi) and it has me pondering my feelings about the tense choice. I think, on the whole, I have to say that I prefer past tense, especially at the novel length, although I have to admit to reading very few present tense novels. (The Hunger Games is on my reading list, though). It seems to me that the language of stories has traditionally been that of past tense, and perhaps that's why I'm more comfortable with it. Having said that, Flash Fiction Online last February, in their classic flash section, had an entertaining flash piece by Anton Chekov written in... you guessed it... present tense. So I guess it isn't the new fad I had thought it was.

As a slush reader, I read a lot of present tense stories by novice writers and have to say that it might be a dangerous tool in the wrong hands. Narrative and 'telling' seem far clunkier in present tense, and tend to be used more by new writers. I have, however, read many present tense stories so skillfully written that I hardly even noticed the tense, much less found that it detracted. Recently, I've read "Tu Sufrimiento Shall Protect Us" by Mercurio D. Rivera, "Exotic Pets" by Ken Liu and "Silent as Dust"  by James Maxey, all present tense, all wonderfully written. "Silent as Dust" was my favorite story in the "InterGalactic Medicine Show Awards Anthology, Vol. I [Kindle Edition]." I recommend the entire anthology and that story in particular. Any of the stories above and many more like them are great examples of present tense well done.

(As anyone who might have checked this post more than once may notice, I have updated it many times as I read more and more present tense stories. Some of the short stories listed here were probably not even published by the original date on this post.)