Our Reading Lives

Why Do I Bounce So Hard Off Fiction Written in Present Tense?

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Casey Stepaniuk

Staff Writer

Known in some internet circles as Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, Casey Stepaniuk is a writer and librarian who holds an MA in English literature and an MLIS. Topics and activities dear to her heart include cats, bisexuality, libraries, queer (Canadian) literature, and drinking tea. She runs the website Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian, where you can find reviews of LGBTQ+ Canadian books. She also writes a monthly column on Autostraddle recommending queer books called Ask Your Friendly Neighbourhood Lesbrarian. Find her on Twitter: @canlesbrarian, Litsy: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian, Goodreads: CaseyTheCanadianLesbrarian, and Facebook: Casey the Canadian Lesbrarian.

In the last year or so of my reading life, I seem to be encountering more fiction written in present tense. I’m not sure if this translates to more being published. But I am cracking open more and more new books written in present tense, usually from a first person perspective, but occasionally, third person. I’m a bit embarrassed to admit that…I hate it? Or, to be less dramatic, I find it hard to overlook my distaste. Much more often than not, I bail on the given book within a few pages. This has happened even with books I was highly anticipating! So I find myself asking: why do I bounce so hard off fiction written in present tense?

Experiences Reading Fiction Written in Present Tense

The first time I remember thinking consciously about a work of fiction written in the present tense was when I read Jim Grimsley’s Dream Boy when I was a grad student. When we discussed in class why the author had chosen to write the novel that way, someone more clever than me pointed out that it served as a reminder that there was no safe present for the main character Nathan to narrate a story from. Dream Boy is a brutal story of abuse and homophobia, one Nathan doesn’t survive. The literary purpose the present tense serves in Dream Boy is powerful and chilling. When you look at the novel retroactively, you realize there is a disturbing, seemingly mundane clue all along that Nathan is going to die.

The books I’ve recently attempted to read that use present tense, however, don’t seem to be using it for the dark effect Grimsley is. The latest book I bailed on, in fact, was a contemporary romcom! (One Last Stop by Casey McQuiston, for those who are curious. It’s written in third person present tense, which in my experience is less common than first person present tense). In addition to adult contemporary fiction and romance, I’ve also found present tense recently in contemporary YA novels. Just the other day, I even picked up a YA fantasy that was written in first person present tense. Fantasy as a genre has such  strong associations with the past — its ties to traditional myth and folklore, its predominantly medieval-inspired settings — that I was flabbergasted to find “I say” instead of “I said.”

Why Would Authors Choose Present Tense and Why Do Some Readers Like It?

When I brought my frustrations to Twitter, asking genuinely to reader and writer friends why authors would choose to write a work of contemporary fiction, YA, or romance this way, I got some interesting answers.   

One YA author, Nita Tyndall, commented that for them present tense adds a sense of immediacy to a contemporary narrative. In other words, it imbues a sense of really being there in the “present,” experiencing everything at the same time as the characters. They do specify, however, that they use first person present for this effect, not third person, which they find unnatural. This certainly put to words my experience. There is just something about present tense that feels unnatural to me. Like Tyndall, I find third person present tense even harder to acclimatize to.

A fellow queer reader, Lizzy Someone, made another excellent point. She wrote that present tense is very common, perhaps the default, in contemporary fan fiction. She even referenced Casey McQuiston as a writer who has roots in fan fiction. McQuiston may be bringing fan fiction conventions to traditional publishing. Why does fan fiction have such a strong tradition of present tense narration? Perhaps for the same reasons of immediacy or to convey a sense of unease that the character might die. That doesn’t explain its dominance though. There’s a whole Reddit thread debating the issue.

So What’s My Issue With Fiction Written in Present Tense?

So if authors are using present tense for specific purposes, and it’s even becoming the default in certain contexts, why do I dislike it so much?

I think the simple but at least partially true answer is I’m just not used to it. Younger readers are probably more accustomed to it. Likewise for those who’ve grown up reading fan fiction. But I suspect there’s a deeper reason as well. In fact, once I dug into my reading past, I discovered present tense might have the opposite effect on me than authors are intending.

A story told in the present tense often makes me feel like I’m being told about the story instead of being in the story itself. Why? The culprit, I believe, is my English literature training. In writing essays about fiction, the golden rule is the write about the details of the book using present tense. This rule is applied no matter what tense the book is written in. As a graduate student and teaching assistant, I taught students specifically not to write “Character so-and-so did this” in their essays.

Back to the issue of immediacy. Part of me absolutely sees using a specific tense to help the reader feel like they’re right there. But another feels a little push back to this idea. There are a LOT of sophisticated techniques writers can use to make readers feel as if they are right there along with the characters. Simply writing in present instead of past tense is not enough on its own. I suspect some of these books I’ve bailed on weren’t doing enough other than using present tense to draw in readers to their characters’ experiences.

What about you? Do you care or pay attention to what tense the fiction you read is written in? Do you like fiction written in present tense, or not?