Had Kafka or Marquez been keen on writing novels in the present tense, who knows, perhaps my two favourite opening lines might have read like this:
Someone slanders Josef K., and one morning, without having done anything truly wrong, he is arrested.
As he faces the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía remembers that distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.
Okay, neither Kafka or Marquez would have written those sentences which are leaden and merely anecdotal compared with these:
This weekend Philip Pullman and Philip Hensher criticised the increasing use of the present tense in novels, pointing out that half the books on this year’s Booker shortlist are in written in the present, as are the majority of books on the longlist. Pullman considers the present tense to be an affectation that limits a writer’s range. Hensher points out that the fashion is symptomatic of a mistaken belief that the present tense plunges us into the action: ‘Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift of tense won’t do that for you.’
The present-tense story is as old as drama and plenty of novels use it in interesting ways alongside other tenses so I’m not as dogmatic as Pullman who apparently doesn’t read present-tense novels, but I am glad he’s raised the issue. The present too often feels like a gimmick and it usually makes me suspicious of the writer. Do they assume the technique will make us feel like direct witnesses to the action? It takes a lot more than that. And what about Pullman’s observation that past has more grammatical subtleties (the perfect, the imperfect, the pluperfect)? Maybe the present tense takes our attention for granted, like an anecdote or a joke told by a friend. Those opening sentences by Kafka and Marquez promise great things will happen. There’s something in the folding together of different past tenses that for me says, here there’s a story to be told and a great craftsperson telling us.