I think that if I open one more teen novel that is written in the present tense I will scream.
I know it's not just me; a conversation about the current present-tense trend dominated discussion on Child_Lit, a listserv devoted to children's and teen literature. Numbers bear out this sense of a trend. Three database queries on reviews of kids' books that contain the phrase "present-tense" or "present tense" produce the following results:
- 2002: 16 reviews
- 2007: 13 reviews
- 2012: 35 reviews—and keep in mind that the year isn't over yet.
While this is hardly scientific, it is nevertheless telling. And while 35 may not seem like a huge number of books in the vast sea of publication, remember also that not every review mentions the narrative tense. It took me about 3 minutes to find 13 September books all written in the present tense in one small section of shelving in my office.
Just what the heck is going on!?
I should confess right now that I have never loved present-tense narration. I remember as a teenager, I associated the present tense with those dreary New Yorker stories in which nothing happened but rain and misery. I bumped into two exceptions to my hatred of the present tense: "A Christmas Memory," by Truman Capote, in which the narrator's use of the present tense beautifully lodges readers in a timeless yet specific past; and One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest, by Ken Kesey, in which the Chief’s narration very deliberately shifts from present to past tense as McMurphy works his transformative genius on the ward and the Chief regains his mental acuity.
So, OK, there is a place for the present tense. More recently, Katniss’ present-tense narration in The Hunger Games and sequels gives readers a front-row seat to her ongoing moral agony, as she continually ponders whether what she's doing is right and justified. E.R. Frank's titular narrator, America, emotionally, physically and sexually abused almost beyond his capacity to survive, exists in a harrowing now with almost no future for retrospective narration imaginable. In If I Stay, by Gayle Forman, narrator Mia modulates between past and present tense as she recalls happy days with her family and decides whether she should choose death or life in the 24-hour aftermath of the car accident that killed all but her.
But come on—although the present tense in the hands of a skilled author does grant a bit of immediacy to a narrative, not every new book demands it, which is sometimes how it feels.
Did Holden Caulfield need the present tense to communicate his angsty adolescent itch? No:
"Anyway, I kept walking around the room, waiting for this prostitute to show up. I kept hoping she'd be good-looking. I didn't care too much, though. I sort of just wanted to get it over with. Finally, somebody knocked on the door, and when I went to open it, I had my suitcase right in the way and I fell over it and damn near broke my knee. I always pick a gorgeous time to fall over a suitcase or something."
Thank goodness J.D. Salinger was writing Catcher in the Rye in 1951, not 2011. Imagine that paragraph in the present tense:
"Anyway, I keep walking around the room, waiting for this prostitute to show up. I keep hoping she'll be good-looking. I don't care too much, though. I sort of just want to get it over with. Finally, somebody knocks on the door, and when I go to open it, I have my suitcase right in the way and I fall over it and damn near break my knee. I always pick a gorgeous time to fall over a suitcase or something."
The past tense gives the anecdote a crystalline specificity, where the present tense mires readers in a muddy, sloshy nowhere-land. It's certainly a lot better than much of the dreary stuff being churned out these days, but it's still unsatisfying.
And it's not nearly as funny without Holden's wry, retrospective commentary. The modulation from the past-tense recollection of the incident to Holden's comment on his general clumsiness gives readers a chance to chuckle in sympathy in the original—who doesn't pick gorgeous times to fall over suitcases?—but it is just an extra sentence in the rewritten version.
Oh, look. Another box of books. Let's open one up…
Vicky Smith is the children's and teen editor of Kirkus.