A few weeks ago, Ellen Levine passed around an article by Philip Pullman about the use of the present tense. “What I dislike about the present tense narrative,” Pullman writes, “is its limited range of expressiveness. I feel claustrophobic, always pressed up against the immediate.” He compares writing in the present to the use of a hand-held camera in film. Writing in the present, he says, is “an abdication of narrative responsibility.” (The Guardian, September 18, 2010.)

Really? Since I am 185 pages into a novel told in first person, present tense, my palms began to sweat when I read this. Is my novel claustrophobic? “Pressed up against the immediate…”–in fact, a sense of immediacy is exactly what I am looking for. I’m not sure if I should admit this, but I didn’t think much about the choice of tense when I started the book. Instead, I heard Brandon spooling out the story and I wrote it down as he was telling it. Somewhere in the second or third chapter, I realized what I was doing–and just kept on.
My last two novels were written in past tense; one in third person, the other alternating first person voices. Past tense felt natural for both, especially since both stories took place a long time ago. Unless you’re writing an epistolary novel (good luck, Gary!) you and the reader buy into the conceit that the narrator is telling you a story that he/she has not written down. First person, present tense requires a similar leap of faith. There’s a gauzy scrim between you and the narrator.
When the Pullman article came in, I was reading a novel suggested by my student, Ann Schoenbohm, called The Velvet Room. It’s an older book, one I missed when it came out because I was already in college and not, at that point, reading children’s novels. The novel is narrated in the past tense, from a third person limited point of view. It’s a Once Upon A Time tale that is satisfying and comforting, even in its most suspenseful scenes. So have I made a mistake, writing in present tense?
I went to my bookcase and pulled Ron’s Strays off the shelf. It’s a present tense novel. I never felt claustrophobic, reading it–just up close and personal with Ted, riding along with him as he deals with tragedy, girls, and talking animals.
So here are some questions: does the choice of tense depend on the story? On the narrator and psychic distance? On the mood you happen to be in when you start writing? Let me know.