Tuesday, October 5, 2010

In the Present

The Accent on Books Reading Group (contact us if you want more information) is currently reading Wolf Hall, Hilary Mantel's Booker Award-winning novel about the intrigues of Henry VIII, as seen through the eyes of one of his advisers, Thomas Cromwell.

One interesting feature of Wolf Hall is that it's written in the present tense, or the "historical present," as the present tense is called in fiction writing. As John Mullan pointed out in a recent article in The Guardian, it is a narrative strategy which, while it has a long history, seems to be popping up more and more in current fiction. Some critics see it as a cheap affectation, the result of the ascendancy of university writers' workshops. Mullan quotes Philip Pullman as calling the historical present "an abdication of narrative responsibility": by avoiding the past tense the author is relieved from -- or abdicates -- the responsibility of putting his or her own perspective on the narrative. On the other hand, it can provide an immediacy, a sense of presence, that past tense would perhaps lack.

As with so much else in writing, the effectiveness of the historical present in the end depends on the talent of the writer using it. In the case of Wolf Hall, I find it to be highly effective, giving you a sense that you are with Cromwell as he navigates the maze that is the politics of Henry VIII's court. And since John Mullan was part of the jury that awarded Wolf Hall the Booker, he obviously agrees with that.

Mullan's article is here.

By the way, our reading group will be meeting at the store at 3:00 PM on Wednesday, October 13, to discuss Wolf Hall. Feel free to come by, if you want to join in.      

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