Tensely present – when writing doesn’t work like it should

Posted: December 2, 2014 in reading
Tags: , , , , , ,

I’ve just started reading The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern, and I was struck straight away by the way the story is told. It’s in the present tense, and the first few pages are also in the second person, told as ‘you did this’ rather than ‘I’ or ‘she’. That’s an unusual tense for a novel, and in even more unusual person, and the effect is interesting.

Theoretically, you might expect it to make the story more immediate. After all, we live our lives in the present, and the second person perspective pushes us directly into the story.

But in practice, the experience is an unsettling one. I’m so used to past tense and first or third person that the unfamiliarity of it is unsettling. I assume this was Morgenstern’s intent – it’s in keeping with the tone and content of those first few pages – and any fiction writer who thought about it might expect the same result. But it still goes against the logic of the language in and of itself, and shows how our reactions are governed by where that language is used – in this case to tell a story.

Anybody else got any thoughts on this? Reasons why my expectations are faulty, or different reasons why it’s unsettling? And how do you feel about reading books in an unusual voice?

  1. Serins says:

    Everybody as their own preference as to what tone or perspective they like to read…. I haven’t read it but it is gutsy for him to write something in such an unusual manner. 🙂 Nowadays you got to try things to stand out from the crowd.

  2. wgosline says:

    I highly recommend reading William Gass’ essay, “A Failing Grade for the Present Tense.” As the title shows, he is not a big fan of it. It is a very entertaining, and always dense, read. For myself, I find writing in the present tense to be a bit too heavy of an affectation.

  3. Did you ever read If On a Winter’s Night A Traveler, by Italo Calvino? That is hands-down my favorite usage of second person writing, because the ‘you’ character starts off by reading a book, and at that moment you (the real you, not the fictional you) is also reading a book, so it’s easily to just climb into the story, and when the literary ‘you’ does other things (go to the book store, meet a new person) it’s a lot easier to follow the ‘you’ into the story since you already made the connection.

    • I haven’t read that one, but that’s a really interesting use of tense. A commenter on G+ pointed out that using second person breaks the fourth wall, which I hadn’t originally considered, but that sounds like a good way to make it feel more natural and less a breaking of the implied pact between storyteller and audience.

      • (“breaking the implied pact between storyteller and audience” – I love that idea…)

        I feel like there are two kinds of second person writing: Calvino’s kind, where “you” literally refers to the person holding the book and reading the words, and the kind you read that inspired this post, where “you” is his/her own distinct character. I feel like the motivations between the two usages must be completely different.

        • That’s an interesting idea. So in the same way that there are different forms of third person perspective, different forms of second person too. I’m not sure Morgenstern’s intention was actually all that different, but that’s given me food for thought.

  4. I loved The Night Circus, Morgenstern is a wonderful writer. I’m not a fan of present tense either, if the writer’s not brilliant it can seem really clumsy and awkward but I think she pulls it off brilliantly. It’s one of my favourite books.

    • I still haven’t got far, but the book seems intriguing, and now I’ve got used to the tense that’s not intruding. Glad to hear that I’ve got something good to look forward to!

  5. Second person feels artificial to me in a way neither first nor third person does. In fact, it feels downright gimmicky. I seldom enjoy novels written entirely in present tense; I have read a few that were fairly good, but I think I’d have liked them more if they’d been written in past tense.

    • ‘Gimmicky’ is a good way of pinning down the potential problem here, I think. When is doing something novel a bold experiment and when is it a gimmick? It’s certainly not going to feel natural, but I think that may have been the point in this case – so far it’s a slightly odd book.

  6. joshnstanton says:

    I don’t remember it fazing me that much, because I simply enjoyed it. It is a great book.

  7. Sheila Thomas says:

    My immediate thought on considering the use of 2nd person present verbs is that it sounds to me like walking through a text-based computer RPG – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Level_9_Computing
    I have never enjoyed computer games more. Happy memories.
    It is also what one finds in “Fighting Fantasy” RPG books – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fighting_Fantasy
    In those contexts, 2nd-present works perfectly, but one had a degree of control. In a novel, I think I would find it uncomfortable, as if taking too much control from me. In a very short story, however, I can imagine it being effective.

    • That point about control is an interesting one. I wonder if that’s part of why it doesn’t work – in the second person the writer is effectively telling you what you’re doing, which is uncomfortable, whereas in first or third they’re directing someone else.

      Wow, there’s way more to this than I originally thought!

  8. glenatron says:

    It depends on the context – it would be hard to do anything else for a Fighting Fantasy book or text adventure game. In fact with my background it does feel like a GM voice more than anything- probably not what someone with serious literary pretentions intends when they use it…

    I have to confess that it’s one of those gambits that tends to make me suspicious that I’m reading something designed to show off rather than create a compelling narrative- but it can work well. The place I recall it being effective was in Complicity, where using the second person very much plays to the core concept of the narrative- it probably helped for me that I was very conscious that Banks was very good at that “too clever by half” stuff so I could put a certain trust in his skills. That and the sections were short interludes in a more conventional narrative.

    Of course if you find it unsettling, you might just be failing the Voight-Kampff test, which would explain those unicorn memories.

    • I just read Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, and based on his prose style I’m not sure Philip K Dick would pass the Voight-Kampff test. It was a very distant sort of writing, quite emotionless.

      Good point about games though. And again, that seems like an example of the context affecting how we respond to the language – in a roleplay game or Fighting Fantasy book you already have a different relationship with the narrative, and the fourth wall’s been built in a different place, so the effect is very different.

      • glenatron says:

        I think he’s a terrible writer- massively overrated and typically he has one or two themes around identity, memory and the outside control thereof that he just keeps coming back to. Most of his stories – at least the shorts I have read – seem to me more like the explanation of an idea than an actual story that I would want to engage with. I wonder whether that is part of why he has filmed well- the makers could take an idea and a few names, then build their own characters and story around it.

        • I suspect that part of his popularity comes from significance – he was exploring themes and ideas others perhaps weren’t yet, now even the concepts don’t seem all that innovative.

  9. […] Tensely present – when writing doesn’t work like it should […]

  10. […] the original if anyone’s curious.) But then I read a great post by Andrew Knighton (which is Here, and I’d highly recommend giving it a look as it raised some interesting points) so the topic’s […]

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