“September. It seems these luminous days will never end.” This is how James Salter’s 1967 novel, “A Sport and a Pastime,” begins. The unnamed narrator is describing Paris—in the present tense. It made me pause because countless writing workshops, articles, and panel discussions tell us the same thing: don't write your novel in the present tense.
Some critics note the onslaught of genre fiction written in the present tense. The implication is that those novels are lowbrow, if not mediocre. Others say the present-tense novel is a fad and an affectation. If Salter’s novel is any indication, a “fad” that has endured 52 years is not a temporary trend.
In an article in The Guardian, Phillip Pullman, the author of the popular “His Dark Materials” fantasy trilogy, praised the use of the present tense as a device to show contrast, such as in "Jane Eyre" and "Bleak House."
Other than that, Pullman said the present tense is a no-no. He criticized the present-tense novel for its limited range of expressiveness and monotony. He compared it to the handheld camera in film, with shaky shots that make him physically sick. He also has a problem with the lack of accountability. By limiting the range to the here and now, it is as if the author doesn't want to take charge of the storytelling.
I understand his arguments. I made the same observations when I was reading Salter's novel. I wanted to know how Phillip Dean, the American expatriate at the center of the book, feels about Anne-Marie, his French lover, instead of filtering those feelings through the narrator's here-and-now POV.
In a couple of chapters, I was bewildered as to how the narrator could describe in great detail the couple's lovemaking unless he was in bed with them at the moment of his narration. The problem was eventually resolved in later chapters. But I could have easily given up before reaching that part. I continued reading only because Salter wrote beautifully.
What I don’t like about the anti-present tense movement is the underlying discriminatory attitude. It’s the equivalent of someone slamming the door in your face. While most writers will probably not be able to pull off writing in the present tense, there are, in fact, many who have succeeded in this style. For that reason alone, why shut the door altogether?
Top 12 Present-Tense Novels
With this in mind, I rounded up my top 12 novels written in the present tense. They are not genre novels, except for “Gone Girl,” which is also considered a crime novel. My top choice, "Room," was written from the point of view of a 5-year-old boy. I dare say that this novel couldn't work in anything but the present tense.
If you haven’t read these novels, check them out. See for yourself if you like the present-tense style.
1 "Room" by Emma Donoghue
2 “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr
3 “Gone Girl" by Gillian Flynn
4 "The Art of Racing in the Rain" by Garth Stein
5 "Water for Elephants" by Sara Gruen
6 "The Help" by Kathryn Stockett
7 “Orphan Train” by Christina Baker Kline
8 “The Hours” Michael Cunningham
9 "A Sport and a Pastime" by James Salter
10 “The Dreamers” by Karen Thompson Walker
11 "The Almost Moon" by Alice Sebold
12 “Origin” by Diana Abu-Jaber
To read the article by Phillip Pullman, click here.
Note: I’ve updated this post, first published on my old blog on Sept. 17, 2014, from a list of 10 to 12 present-tense novels.