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Literary Glance: The Nix by Nathan Hill

May 16, 2017

I’m not a fan of present tense usage in fiction, but it’s tough for me to say why.  When I tried explaining this in a writer’s group over 20 years ago, I couldn’t find the right words.  I ended up saying something like “I just don’t like present tense.”

Another writer in the group said that was a stupid reason and then he called me an a-hole.  Maybe I didn’t have a good reason for not liking present tense, and maybe I was an a-hole, but if I was an a-hole back then, it wasn’t because I didn’t like present tense in fiction.

This would have been a great opportunity in our writer’s group to discuss whether present tense adds anything to fiction (or even what makes a person an a-hole), but somebody quickly changed the subject back to the book we were discussing (which I don’t remember… it was some 1990’s literary stuff.  It might have been The Shipping News.  The guy who called me an a-hole loved The Shipping News, but I don’t remember if The Shipping News used present tense)

A couple weeks later, the guy who called me an a-hole had a flat tire after our meeting and I wouldn’t let him use my jack.

Okay, I’ll admit, at that moment, I was being an a-hole.

*****

There’s a reason I’m thinking about present tense and whether or not I’m an a-hole.  I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read so far of The Nix by Nathan Hill.  It seems like a good book.  The short prologue was great.  The first chapter is good, but huge sections of the book are written in the present tense.  That still bugs me a little bit.

For example, the first chapter takes place in 2011, but it’s written in the present tense.  The portions of the book that take place in 1988 are written in the past tense.  To me, the tense change is unnecessary.  If anything, the tense change is distracting.  Maybe that’s what the author wants. I might be missing something.

Here’s how Part One opens:

The headline appears one afternoon on several websites almost simultaneously: GOVERNOR PACKER ATTACKED!

Television picks it up moments later, bumping into programming as the anchor looks gravely into the camera and says,”…

I know this isn’t a large enough sample size to judge the writing style for an entire novel (I’m trying to keep my blog posts short), but I don’t think the book would lose anything by being in the past tense when the author was clear this is supposed to take place in 2011.

Here’s how the sample would look/sound in the past tense:

The headline appeared one afternoon on several websites almost simultaneously: GOVERNOR PACKER ATTACKED!

Television picked it up moments later, bumping into programming as the anchor looked gravely into the camera and said,”…

Maybe I’m wrong, but using the present tense doesn’t make this excerpt any better.  In fact, if this section had been written in the past tense, I probably wouldn’t have even noticed the author’s writing style.  To me, the present tense should be used sparingly, and it wasn’t necessary just to remind the readers that we’re in a different section of the book.

I have to admit, I haven’t finished The Nix yet.  Maybe the tense changes make more sense once the entire book is finished.  If so, hopefully I’ll figure it out.  Sometimes I don’t pick up all the literary cues.

I’m probably going to keep reading The Nix, and I mean that as a compliment.  I don’t finish reading many books.  I sample many but finish few.  If I told that guy in my old writer’s group that I didn’t finish most books that I started, he’d probably call me an a-hole again.

*****

What do you think?  Is present tense overused in fiction?  Am I an a-hole for not articulating a good reason for not liking present tense in fiction?  Was I an a-hole for not helping out the guy with the flat tire after he called me an a-hole?

6 Comments
  1. Can’t wait to see what you write once you get further into the book…. if present tense bothers you wait until the rambling pages long sentences start coming lol. I loved the book, but there are some annoying sections and it tried my patience.

  2. In general, if I’m noticing the tense, or the tense changes, while reading that’s a problem (unless it’s n experimental piece or is meant to jar). It should feel natural.

    YA goes in for present tense a lot, but I don’t read it that much so I’m not troubled.

    I’m currently reading John Banville’s “The Book of Evidence” which is written, nominally, in the present tense, but it’s about the past—a guy recounts a series events—so the majority of the text is in the past tense. However, it does make for interesting transitions: a couple of pages in the past, we’re following the guy along, and then suddenly a short bit in the present, with which he reminds us that what we’re reading is a story within a story. Very effective, and I’m not sure it could have been done any other way. (E.g. going from past to far past wouldn’t have worked as well.)

    So there are places where the present tense is indispensable, but I’m not convinced everything that can be written in the present, should be—or is better off—written in the present.

  3. You are too funny. No, you do not have to explain why you don’t like present tense in fiction writing; I happen to agree and I am a genius. Anyone who thinks you are an a-hole for liking past tense better is an a-hole and should have to drive home on a flat tire.

  4. Maybe he’s using the historical present. I had a teacher in high school who always used the historical present. It drove me nuts at the time, but I get it now.

  5. I love present tense, it’s my favorite to write in and I enjoy reading it too. I’ve read so many books in present that it doesn’t surprise me anymore, so maybe it’s a matter of familiarity? It seems to be getting more common across a range of genres and demographics. As for what present tense adds to fiction, I find it adds a sense of immediacy that I really like. A feeling of being there *IN* the moment as it’s unfolding, not after it already happened. Of course, how it’s written matters – I’m sure there are bad present tense books out there – and also there are stories it suits better than others.

  6. What I’ve enjoyed most about the debate of Present Tense v Past Tense Debate is the snotty attitudes I’ve encountered. (And I’ve never met a snotty pro-Past Tenser.) I’m not saying if you’re a Pro-Tenser, you’re a jerk, but there’s a better way to persuade me to change than some have tried.

    Years ago (she wrote past-tensedly), a group in my communications class was critiquing something I’d written, and one woman said, “Personally, I don’t like to write in the passive voice, but…”

    I recall a Queen Elizabeth-style parade wave at the utter lack of conclusion to that sentence.

    I deserve a lot of credit for not strangulating her, although my restraint reflects more my desire to avoid being shivved as I try to have a private little pee in a prison cell. Had I fewer psycho-toileting issues, she’d be in the past tense.

    I can’t make up my mind either. I just blogged something that starts with past tense, flows into present, then reverts. When I finished, I felt like a literary adulteress, but I’ll own the A on my shirt. It can stand for Adulteress, but it can also stand for Asshole because I don’t believe present tense is the crowning achievement of writing style, and I don’t mind saying it, or having said it, or did dun sed it (as my cousins from the Ozarks might say).

    Where do you stand on comma splices? It took me three Harry Potter books to stop shrieking and just enjoy her stories.

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