Why Now, Why Then?: Present-tense Narration in Contemporary British and Commonwealth Novels1

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Editor: Jeffrey W. Hunter
Publisher: Gale, a Cengage Company
Document Type: Critical essay
Length: 9,325 words

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[(essay date 2009) In the following essay, Miyahara examines the now-commonplace usage of present-tense narration by several novelists, including Penelope Lively.]

Introduction

Anne Enright's The Gathering (2007), DBC Pierre's Vernon God Little (2003), J. M. Coetzee's Disgrace (1999), Graham Swift's Last Orders (1996), Penelope Lively's Moon Tiger (1987), Keri Hulme's The Bone People (1984)--what do these books have in common, other than the fact that they are all Booker Prize winners in the last quarter-century? Answer: they are novels narrated basically in the present tense, and examples abound when we expand our scope and search all types of novels published in the same period--with Margaret Atwood's quasi-autobiographical Cat's Eye (1988), Michael Cunningham's temporally multilayered fiction The Hours (1998), Deborah Moggach's straightforwardly-plotted mystery Tulip Fever (1999), Jacqueline Wilson's teen book Girls in Love (1997), Jon McGregor's prose-poem If Nobody Speaks of Remarkable Things (2003), Paul McCartney and Philip Ardagh's picture book for children High in the Clouds (2005), Paul J. McAuley's techno-thriller science-fiction Fairyland (1997), and Sophie Kinsella's chick-lit The Secret Dreamworld of a Shopaholic (2000).

This considerably wide use of the narrative present tense is not a unique phenomenon in these two or three decades. According to Christian Paul Casparis, the extensive use of present-tense narration in the novels in English saw a "sudden increase [...] around the beginning of the 'sixties", presumably as a result of the delayed influence of the French nouveau roman (Casparis 205). However, as many will agree, present-tense narration has turned out to be a lot more than just a fad import from France. In fact, it seems to have become quite a common, or commonplace, practice. Concurrently, there have been a number of studies carried out to explain the effects and possibilities of present-tense narration. More often than not, those explanations show mutual contradiction.

Almost all the scholars of present-tense narration depend more or less upon Otto Jespersen's "vividness" interpretation as a springboard (see Jespersen 258), and they individually try to clarify what in the present tense enhances the vividness of description. Roughly speaking, there are two schools in the study of present-tense narration. One tries to establish a single, comprehensive principle which covers all the uses found in all types of communication, including uncanonical ones such as simultaneous reporting of a current procedure and so-called historical present. The other maintains that there should be a tense grammar which deals specifically with the genre of storytelling. The scholars belonging to this latter group tend to argue that, in the grammar of narration, tense does not have to express the relationship between speech time and event time, whereas the former group sees the speech-event coincidence as imperative.2

Differences and incongruities can be observed not only between the two groups but within each group as well. Most of those who give absolute priority to temporal coincidence of speech and event rely on a kind of epistemic leap when they deal with the narrative present tense. In order to enable the speaker to exist simultaneously with the past event, they maintain that the speaker's consciousness temporarily goes...

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Gale Document Number: GALE|H1100105408