Wednesday, 30 July 2014

The Historic Present: A Challenge

The great Humphrys-Bragg Battle of the Historic Present rumbles on, with Braggy sounding off today, I believe, from behind the Times firewall. These two broadcasting silverbacks have long cultivated a half-joshing antagonism, but I'm not quite sure why Humphrys chose to have a pop at Bragg over this particular issue. In fact, I wonder if Humphrys was thinking not of Bragg's In Our Time (which makes sparing use of the HP) but of the Radio 4 history series The Long View, which uses it on a grand scale, to irritating effect.
 The wider problem with the historic present, it seems to me, is the way it's invaded fiction. Entire novels are now routinely written in the HP - a case in point being the current Book at Bedtime, a historical novel called The Miniaturist. Does this make the action more vivid and immediate? Far from it; when everything is in the HP, it would take a switch into a proper past tense to liven things up. The historic present is fine and effective in its place, used thoughtfully, but too often in contemporary fiction it's no more than a lazy habit, encouraged by publishers, who seem to think it helps to sell their books (not to me it doesn't - if a book begins in the HP I'm liable to abandon it straight away). I suspect that this fashionable trope will be one of the things that make the novels of our time unreadable to subsequent generations (which is, after all, the fate of most of what is written in any age).
 But here's a challenge for my erudite readers: Can anyone name a great, or even first-rate, full-length novel (in English) that is written entirely in the historic present? I can't think of a single one, but that might just be the summer heat addling my brain...  

19 comments:

  1. Can't help you there Nige, but my favourite tense has to be the Sporting Descripitve Past as used by its greatest exponent, Harry Redknapp, and as studied seriously by a German (!) academic who wrote a thesis on it. " The boy's gone down the wing, he's crossed the ball and Linvoy's headed it into the net". It's only used in English Football by a small selection of usually cockney managers and pundits who must have learnt it in the back streets of the East End.

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  2. from memory I think The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Attwood is in the historical present - and Wolf Hall

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    1. But would you put Wolf Hall in the "great, or even first-rate" category?

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  3. Ha! No, I don't particularly rate either of them, but plenty of other people seem to think they're very good...

    A bit of googling seems to show that Dickens was rather fond of the historical present tense

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  4. Yes true, but I think this was nearly always in lively action scenes, which is fine. Today his publisher would tell him to begin 'It is the best of times, it is the worst of times...'

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  5. I agree about Wolf Hall (and its successor), which is over-long and overrated. Why she chose to write it in HP I can't imagine. The first novel that I can remember being written in it throughout is Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man, but, since its concerns people who live on the cusp of Now and want to be seen to be the first with the Next Big Thing, I think its use is entirely justified. Shallow people like the Kirks are best expressed in HP; serious people like Thomas Cromwell are trivialised by it.

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  6. It's pretty clear why she wrote Cromwell in HP. Its to place us in the moment and give us a sense of immediacy so that we live the history. One can understand why one might attempt this - to demonstrate to us how our period differs from the Tudor and to demonstrate how alien it is to us. That seems to be an admirable aim as it could result in giving us an impression of how curious and fascinating the past is/was. Whether the undertaking is successful or not is another matter.

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  7. Artistically it allows a play between what we have in common with past characters -ie we share their humanity, and how we differ from them. A lot of potential there.

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  8. Yes you can see why she used HP, but did it really work as intended? I suspect not. Was her French Revolution novel, A Place of Greater Safety, also in HP? I've never read it, tho I've been meaning to for years...
    And how interesting that The History Man was in HP. That one I have read and had entirely forgotten that fact, which must have seemed very significant and original at the time.

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  9. Nige: Yes, yes, YES! If I place a hold on some book and find, after picking it up at the library, that it is written all in the present tense, my first feelings are disgust and disappointment. It is a rare book that can hold me longer than the first page or two in spite of this fault. It would have to be so absorbing that I forget the tense, and few novels can make me do that right away. Back it goes to the library. If it is a book I got through a swap or ordered online, it goes to Goodwill. When, as in the case of the books mentioned here, I am forewarned, I do not try to get the book at all. Perhaps I miss some great books this way, but I am also spared a great deal of irritation.

    I keep hoping this fad will fade away, but I fear that it is gathering strength, and not for the right reasons, either.

    To Worm: I have enjoyed most of Dickens' novels. I do not have any on hand so I can check, but I suspect that he must have used the historical present, or whatever people may call it, in a masterful way, and probably did not misuse it, or I would not have kept reading him! No objections to an author's using it for scenes in which immediacy is desired.

    Old lady in CA.

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  10. Nige, I reserve judgement on the Cromwell novels' success. The fact that I abandoned one after not long suggests it might not have succeeded for me. I have read "A Place of Greater Safety". It is narrated in the present by a contemporary narrator which is not the same as HP, I think, which is narrated by the author. I ploughed dutifully through most of it but had a sense of getting lost. She can be brilliant, though, as in "A Change of Climate".

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  11. "Artistically it allows a play between what we have in common with past characters -ie we share their humanity, and how we differ from them. A lot of potential there."

    I don't see how HP aids in that at all. I feel plenty of humanity-sharing when reading about past events--no matter how far in the past--and it doesn't matter what the tense is. What I hate about HP is its "in-your-faceness," forever saying, "Look at me/her/him/them now! Now (I'm) doing this. And now (I'm) doing this!" It gets very tiring.

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  12. Yes that's it - it is decidedly tiring, and rather like being bludgeoned by style, when the ideal of style is to be invisible - ars celare artem and all that...

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  13. Guess I'd better make way for better judgements!

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  14. So! from beyond this morning's firewall, JH carries the banner even further down the road of English destitution, his gripe ending as follows..

    I could bang on about this stuff for ever and probably will. Or maybe I shall beg a corner of the cave in Spain where Matthew Parris, as he told his readers on Wednesday, has taken refuge while the linguistic war rages. We’ll need lots of supplies to see it out.

    Oh, well just get on with it sunshine and leave us in peace.

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  15. I reckon Wolf Hall is absolutely first rate. Can hardly think of any novels I've enjoyed more.

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  16. On the wider point, whatever the tense the most important thing is that the voice speaks directly to you, and it takes two to tango for that - writer and reader. For example, although I know objectively that Virginia Woolf is a much greater 'stream-of-consciousness' writer than J P Donleavy, the latter's writing always went straight to the pleasure part of my brain, whereas Woolf's voice is to me an irritating whine. That of course isn't her fault, we're just not sympatico (it's not you, Virginia, it's me).

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  17. So! from the depths of today's firewall, in the section marked Culture, comes an edict from AAGill, whilst finding the words culture and AAGill somewhat at odds, I pass on his findings.....

    The historical present is an intense tense; it’s the one I seem to remember Hilary Mantel uses in her Wolf Hall trilogy, the tense of the Lady of Shalott and Ophelia: “He took me by the wrist and held me hard;/Then goes he to the length of all his arm;/And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,/He falls to such perusal of my face/As he would draw it.” So ,Tennyson and Shakespeare: not bad company for embarrassing trendy BBC Tristrams. I can sense that all over the nation, you are even now finding clarion examples of historical-present writing to send to Humphrys, care of the Today programme.

    That's it then, it's official, HP has been given clearance.

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