On Tenses

I have noticed an increase in the number of books that are written in the present tense. I’m sure the technique is intended to heighten excitement, suspense, or tension, and maybe it does in some situations. Speaking for myself, I find it irksome and distracting. For many (most) books written in this way, it feels artificial, the text like a rubber band that the author has stretched too far.

Here is a short sample list of books I have read recently that are written this way:

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
Winterland by Alan Glynn
Room by Emma Donoghue
Skippy Dies by Paul Murray

Perfume by Patrick Suskind is interesting. On one half page of chapter 1 he uses the present tense to describe his main character’s traumatic (and dramatic) birth. And that’s it. He never uses the present tense again. (Correct me if I’m wrong). Wonderful book, btw.

In Hans Fallada’s famous book Alone in Berlin (US, Every Man Dies Alone) written in 1947, he mixes his tenses. In some chapters, he starts in the past tense and then segues into the present, using past tense to tell us how the scenario came about and then the present tense to tell us what transpires. In other chapters he reverses this, starting with the present tense and then using the past tense to fill in the scenario. I’m not sure if this might be characteristic of the way German is spoken, but it is a very effective technique. I expect it’s probably considered old-hat in literature nowadays, which is a pity.

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