Author Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense, the first person

“If every sound you emit is a scream, a scream has no expressive value. What I dislike about the present-tense narrative is its limited range of expressiveness.”

So said His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman in a 2010 Guardian article in which the oftentimes controversial and outspoken author argues that, because of this “limited range of expressiveness”, writers who choose to construct first-person, present-tense narratives are depriving their readers of a broader literary experience. Going so far as to call present-tense narration a “silly affectation”, Pullman argues that present-tense narratives these days are akin to the hand-held camera technique used in many action films — dizzying, claustrophobic, and limiting. Additionally, this “abdication of narrative responsibility” is posited by Guardian columnist Richard Lea to be inexorably linked to living in the age of social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook, where life is reduced to “a series of unconnected moments” expressed through first-person narratives. Present-tense narration is undeniably catching, especially in young adult literature (think The Hunger Games, Divergent, Twilight, etc.) and seems to only be gaining in popularity each year. But should we go so far as to caution against it entirely?

Good points, all, in my opinion. However, I don’t entirely agree with Mr. Pullman, even as someone who is admittedly a reluctant convert to present-tense storytelling. If we, according to Pullman, limit ourselves both as writers and as readers by immersing ourselves in first-person, present-tense narration, wouldn’t it also be an “abdication of narrative responsibility” to reject said narrative style outright as well? The big, sprawling, nigh-undefinable mess that we call “good literature” is all about balance, and if one rejects one type of narrative mode outright, it destabilizes and cheapens the whole enterprise. In short — as both a writer and as an editor — I feel it’s an abdication of narrative responsibility to deny one’s self the possibilities of first-person, present-tense narrative, or of any narrative mode, simply because of the mechanics of its narrative constraints. If executed with skill and care, present tense can be a writer’s best friend, especially if one puts one’s trust in the reader to make leaps and draw conclusions and make the story his or her own. There is a lot to be said for unreliable narrators, and I think that writing in present tense — especially first-person present — allows for those possibilities to unfold in uniquely challenging and exciting ways.

What do you guys think? Discussion party in the comments, go!

— Sylvia

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2 Responses to Author Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense, the first person

  1. Aly Hughes says:

    I never used to enjoy first person narratives, but that was always a personal choice. I think it can be narrow-minded to say that we should eradicate that form of narrative completely. It’s funny that he argues present-tense first narratives as being like the hand-held cameras of literature, because that’s what makes it work so well for The Hunger Games when they’re in the arena battling. That is a great example of where it was, in my opinion, the best form of narration to choose, because that is exactly what the books were conveying.

    I definitely agree with you that we shouldn’t try to limit ourselves as writers. Despite the fact that I generally dislike first person narration(I find it hard to connect to characters, but maybe I’m not empathetic enough), it would definitely be a loss if it went the way of second person narratives!

    • I avoided first-person narratives for a long time as well, largely because a lot of present-tense narratives tend to go hand-in-hand with first person, and I used to have biiiig issues with the present tense. I think I read Barbara Kingsolver’s Animal Dreams in eighth grade and never quite recovered :-p. But, as the years wore on, I started to open up to the possibilities of both first-person and present-tense narratives, and I’m happy that I did — as a reader, as a writer, and as an editor.

      Sylvia

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