In the Here and Now

August 6, 2015 § Leave a comment

At The Lit Hub, Alexander Chee offers praise for the present tense in fiction:

In the present tense, you aren’t stuck to the moment—you can go forward and backward in time. In fiction, the demands of the present tense are in some ways the opposite of that exploration of uncertainty—the tense places a demand for the elimination of all other possibilities in the writer’s imagination—this is what happened and is what is still happening whenever this memory returns to this character or whenever this moment matters.

The present tense encourages a sitting, an observing, a letting things come to us. How often do we use it when we relay things that are comfortably secured and locked in the past? Think of how we share stories among friends, the way we talk as though the audience member is present at the scene: Tommy sees the snake and comes bursting out the bathroom with his pants around his ankles and the rest of us are just sitting there, dying laughing. Or: I’m driving down Route 6 minding my own business when this cop comes up behind me, and I’m thinking oh shit, what the fuck does he want? We use the present tense to tell narrative jokes: A man walks into a bar…

Critics often use the present tense to summarize movies, as though the audience is following along in the moment: Sonny stops at the toll booth, and there’s a delay as the toll booth operator drops the change. Then the movie goes silent, and that’s the moment when he knows he’s doomed.

Sports color commentators use the present tense to rehash a play that just happened. Archer throws a changeup on the outer half of the plate and Ortiz does a nice job of keeping his hands back on the ball and lifting it to the opposite field.

I have used present tense a few times myself, including for my baseball stories, even though they are set in the 1990s. It should come as no surprise that some of my favorite fiction uses the present tense, including John Updike’s Rabbit tetralogy.

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