Recently I had the most absurd literary experience of my short life. I was out to dinner with some relatives from England and I mentioned I just finished reading Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies by Hilary Mantel and had enjoyed them immensely.
Suddenly there was a clatter of silverware, an English relative had dropped his knife and fork,and was clutching his brow, “How ghastly! Wolf hall is the worst book ever.”
I was more astonished, than offended by his completely unexpected reaction and was momentarily at a loss for words.
His wife weighed in and said, “That Mantel woman is very odd. Have you seen her? Do you know what she looks like?”
I recovered myself enough to respond to her interrogation, “Yes, her picture was on the dust jacket. I read an interview in The Paris Review about her and-”
“Good God, it’s all written in the present tense.” Blustered the Husband, “I cannot stand anything written in the present tense. It’s just wrong, all wrong.”
“Well I suppose it was all present tense.” I said, relieved to be off the topic of Hilary Mantel’s looks. “But I still enjoyed it.”
The husband groaned and said, “The past tense. If it’s not written in the past tense, then it’s not worth reading. If I open a book and it’s written in the present tense, well I end it right there.”
His wife nodded her head in knowing agreement. I wasn’t sure what was going on, so I refrained from laughing until I asked one more question, “So you only read things written in the past tense?”
“Jolly right I do.” he said, “We both do. Anything else is…” and he shuddered at the thought of it.
So I’ve been pondering past and present tense quite intensely these last few weeks. I can’t say I prefer one over the other. I’ve never heard of writing being judged this way before, but there’s a lot I haven’t heard of. Incidentally I still recommend Hilary Mantel’s books, Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies. Historical Novels written in the present tense are an engaging and lively read for some us.