Friday, 11 September 2015

Unwrapped Present - Catherine Butler

This month’s shameful confession is unlikely to win me many friends on ABBA - but here goes.

That fact is, I’m a bit tired of first-person present-tense narratives. I’m particularly over them in young-adult novels, where they have come to be more or less the norm. It’s not that there’s anything wrong with this way of telling a story, but it’s become increasingly ineffective at doing what it was designed for - or what I assume it was designed for.
Let me explain by way of an analogy. Do you remember The Blair Witch Project – that horror movie from 1999 about a group of teenaged students doing a film project on a local witch legend? One of the things that made it famous was the device of presenting the story in the form of “found footage” – undirected, unedited, featuring only the real-time reactions of the students themselves. With its shaky hand-held camera, tight close-ups and poor lighting, it made the horror edgy, unpredictable, immersive.

Once The Blair Witch Project had shown what could be done in that line, a slew of other films appeared using the same technique. Some were very good – I loved Troll Hunter, for instance – but after a while, inevitably, the idea got tired, and the hand-held camera became a cliché.

Well, fashions come and go; it’s the natural way of things. Once a novelty has been chewed till it has no more flavour, it’s stuck to the bedpost of oblivion.

(Some fads inexplicably survive long beyond that point, admittedly. The vogue for sagging jeans, with underpants on lurid display, probably deserved to die young on both aesthetic and practical grounds, but it’s lasted for a generation and retains its cachet in some quarters. As long as people  keep trying to ban them - like the council of Ocala, Florida - droopy trews will no doubt retain the appeal of forbidden, low-hanging fruit, at least to their wearers. But I digress.)

I see first-person present tense as a case much like The Blair Witch Project. Like the handheld camera and the “found footage” vibe of that film, first-person present-tense narration is a way of giving a story a feeling of unmediated, moment-by-moment experience. That’s fine, and indeed many of the best YA books of the last ten years have been written this way, but the technique has assuredly lost any novelty value it may once have enjoyed. The law of diminishing returns has long since kicked in and, like an over-prescribed antibiotic, first-person present tense has become increasingly ineffective as a means of conferring “immediacy”.

Without that advantage, what does it have to recommend it? Well, sometimes it’s a useful device if the survival of the narrator is to be kept in doubt. Katniss Everdeen, the narrator of The Hunger Games, is in danger of being killed through much of that book. Arguably, if she were telling the story in the past tense then that fact would act as a guarantee of her survival beyond the last page and thus diminish the tension. But there is a debit side to present-tense narration, too – notably its demand that we imagine a protagonist who for some unknown reason is compelled to narrate everything that happens to her in real time to an audience of imaginary strangers. Literary convention may help us ignore the implausibility of this, but it’s still a little irksome.

So, I suggest we lay off the present tense for a while and explore some of the hitherto-neglected tenses. Take the future perfect, for example - so full of promise and of expectation: “It will have been the best of times, it will have been the worst of times…” 

While we’re at it, let’s really involve the reader by telling stories in the second person rather than the first:

“One morning, waking from anxious dreams, you discovered that you had been changed into a monstrous verminous insect.”

I’d read it. You would too.


Sue Purkiss said...

Hear, hear! By the way - am very intrigued by the notion of all those things being stuck onto 'the bedpost of oblivion'. It sounds a bit like something out of Pilgrim's Progress - 'With a sensation of increasing dread, I climb the Staircase of Despair and find myself at the Bedpost of Oblivion'... Oops, it doesn't sound quite right...

Joan Lennon said...

Well, I'm still your friend - first person present has to be handled so subtly and it's way too easy to be heavy-handed with it. Unfortunately, now I have an image of the used-gum-bestuck Bedpost of Oblivion stuck in my mind ... yuck -

C.J.Busby said...

I did think for a while of doing a story in whatever tense it is that uses 'is going' (is that present imperfect?) to see what sort of effect it had. For example: "He is waking now and the darkness is gathering around him. The men on the hill are standing, wary. They are wondering what sort of new creature this is, that is rising up slowly out of the bracken. The mist and shadows are swirling and then suddenly he is running towards them." It does have a tendency to sound a bit Welsh, but I think it could be dramatic. Hard to keep up, though!

Catherine Butler said...

I'm not sure - is that the present continuous? The present progressive? The present-in-a-perpetual-state-of-becoming? I think I prefer the last.

Emma Barnes said...

I do find myself yearning to read a big, multi-stranded, multi character novel where the reader can see into whatever head the author chooses at the time. And without having to jump between first person perspectives from chapter to chapter - another trendy way of doing things - but simply written in good, old-fashioned third person Omniscient Point of View.

Catherine Butler said...

A YA Middlemarch - yes please!

Richard said...

I think I've mentioned it before, but Halting State by Charles Stross is in second person, present tense. It works well to immerse the reader but it takes a few pages to get used to.

Dianne Hofmeyr said...

Tell me when last a YA Middlemarch rose to the top of the slush pile? Publishers have a lot to blame for this. They like first person. Find it more immediate & cast anything else as non-commercial, too historical, too safe. They get stuck in what sells or in what Marketing feels sells.
I do like the second person... although its tricky to write and keep up.