First Person Present Tense

For the past couple of years, as I read Children’s and YA novels, I have noticed an increase in First Person Present Tense narrative style.  I know there are at least two factors here — First Person narrative voice and Present Tense narrative … um… tense.. but since there are so many of the combined two that I’ve read recently, I think of them as one “phenomenon.”

I asked on child_lit:

Has anyone done any research or written articles about this trend?  Is it a trend or just a fluke?  What are some of the reasons that this has become more prevalent?  I am also curious about what people feel as readers of these books and how young readers’ relationships with books might change (or might not) due to this very young-character-centered and very living in the present (no past, no future) mode.

I was pointed to two recent articles that addressed this newish trend: Present Tensions, or It’s All Happening Now by Deirdre Baker for December 2011 Hornbook’s Opinion page and Philip Pullman calls time on the present tense by Philip Pullman for the September 18, 2010

After reading these articles and also some wise observations and opinions from fellow child_lit scholars, I felt that I could grasp this phenomenon a little better and also have some half-formed opinions regarding the use of this particular POV + Tense.

I wrote yesterday on Child_lit:

I am not sure that I totally agree with Pullman’s almost categorical rejection of the actual POV/Tense itself — I think of it as another tool/device that is in the toolbox of any writer and all I am asking is for the authors to consider consciously and carefully of which voice and which tense to use that will help them deliver best the tale they are telling or the events they are reporting.

I don’t think there is any intrinsic worthiness or lack of such of any tense – or POV.  I do reject the blindness that seems to happen in publishing world whenever a new “trend” starts or gets stronger: What I don’t like is sensing a potentially great story or character being handled carelessly and “wrongfully” by writers or editors just because some popular stories are told this way and thus their new story must also be told in this fashion.  I also think authors need to understand their own writing styles and choose the one that fits themselves best, too.  

For example, if the author’s biggest pleasure in writing is to craft beautifully metaphorical sentences that reveal some inner and deeper meanings of everyday life, it’s probably not gonna be very convincing if these sentences are coming from a first person narrator who is a 10-year-old city girl with no special background or personality traits to justify such expert use of literary language.  If the tale would have been richer and more flavorful by allowing the readers to see the main character from more than one angle or to offer events that the main character could not have witnessed, then, a first person narrative voice would have “thinned” the story and reduced its impact.  On the other hand, if the whole point of the tale is to show the consequences of lack of maturity or understanding of the big picture, then a constant close-ups that only allows the readers to see the story from a narrow mindset might enhance the final reveal.

No matter what the writers decided to tell their stories, I simply wish that young readers, with the guidance of great teachers and librarians, have the opportunities and skills to enjoy the “double pleasure” of not only “getting the stories” but also of “figuring out the author’s craft.” I find myself often in the position of begging young readers (or sometimes extremely practiced lifelong readers) to be hyper aware of the narrative devices and hone their literary eyesights and hearings acutely in order to heighten their own reading experiences.

I am still a firm believer that literary criticism can only enhance the richness of a reading exercise.  (Yup, I used this word!) And to unpack and understand the strengths and limitations of First Person Present Tense has given me a lot of pleasure already!  I’m sure more thoughts on this will surface as I read more 2012 Children’s books!

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