I recently learned that I’m a part of the herd in yet another depressing way. According to David Jauss, recent guest contributor on Brian Klems’s Writer’s Digest blog, my choice to write my WIP in the present tense is so “common place” it borders on cliché. Jauss’s post is an excerpt from his book On Writing Fiction. In it he makes the point that the present tense has become “the default choice for young writers.”
I’m certainly not claiming to be young, my beard’s almost as white as his, but I am an early career writer. As such, I’m always on the lookout for free and pertinent writing advice. So I didn’t delete that day’s WD email, “The Pros and Cons of Writing a Novel in Present Tense.”
By the way, kudos to Klems for crafting an effective subject line. It may seem uninspired at first glance. But it worked. It got me to read the post.
And that’s how I learned that a fundamental structural choice I had made for my debut novel is trite.
Or is it?
Jauss at least partly bases his conclusion on his experiences with his undergrad writing students. (And it’s only fair to admit that I’m probably being a bit harsh in my depiction of his views on verb tense. Sue me, I got defensive.) While he obviously views the “fad” of present tense writing as a bad thing – I’ll get to that in a bit – mostly he seems concerned with giving less experienced writers some tools to help them choose the right verb tense for their manuscripts. Choose being the operative word in the previous sentence. I applaud and support him 100% in that goal. I also thank him for sharing his list of Pros and Cons.
His post is worth reading, if for no other reason than Jauss’s (short) list of the limitations and advantages of the present tense. He doesn’t say anything new exactly – he is definitely aiming at a greener audience – but that’s part of his point. Which is the other reason his excerpt is such a good read. A well reasoned discussion of verb tense is long overdue. The quote he includes from one of his students really says it all: “Isn’t [present tense] the way fiction’s supposed to be written now?”
Jauss answers in the resounding negative, which is fine. Where I start to break with him is over what seems to be his assumption that the past tense is “the way fiction’s supposed to be written,” that its primacy has merely been usurped by a new trend. That writers need to return to the more venerated model.
How is that better? I hope his (alleged) implication is merely an accident of excerption. Otherwise, he’s simply advocating trading one thoughtless choice for another.
As his essay so nicely points out, both tenses have their advantages and disadvantages. Hopefully, he argues elsewhere in his book that there should never, ever be a default choice in any part of the fiction writing process. That every element of a well-crafted novel should contribute to the story, down to its tiniest word. Because that’s what the great writers do: they make thousands of great choices that result in great fiction. They weigh the pros and cons of each detail and never rely on any short-hand settings, no matter how time honored. Jauss tacitly cedes this point when he states that “the best writers almost always seem to know, either consciously or intuitively, when to use present tense.” Until I read his book I can only hope that this is the lesson he’s teaching his students and not that they should simply replace one lazy habit with another.
And now, mostly because I can’t help but be a smart ass (and because I’m still feeling a bit defensive), I want to offer a quick critique of the validity of his preference for the past tense. Isn’t its use the real cliché choice? After all, Professor Jauss himself calls it “a tense that has served authors since the very inception of fiction,” which is sort of the definition of trite. I’m just saying.
Ah, but I must tread carefully, lest I engage in a debate about an argument he actually made. And where’s the fun in that?
Instead I will simply conclude my rebuttal of the argument David Jauss did not make, confident of my rhetorical (and completely imagined) victory.