Sunday, September 11, 2016

The Past Speaks of the Present

In Chapter 6, Subject Pronoun and Verb, Ms. Le Guin mentions references Lynne Sharon Schwartz, whose essay, Remembrance of Tense Past is an insightful analysis of influenza, miniskirts, and of course verb tense with many thoughtful examples of both success and failures of using the present tense (also called focused narrative tense, by Le Guin). In Steering the Craft, Le Guin analyzes the fallacy of 'immediacy' as a reason to use the focused narrative tense. In this post, I'll examine some of the other points Schwartz makes in her essay.

Being that the essay was written in 1987 for the  New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly, its only been put to pixels through the efforts of JSTOR, a digital library founded in 1995. The website is as much a journey back in time as the essay is -- though the essay, eight years older, feels more contemporary, and I found myself stuck with a user interface that forced on to flip through pages saved as images -- a solution that struggles in a world of rotating screens of varying sizes. But for a Chromebook, it was serviceable.

I had to read the essay more than once, and being as each page as an image, I have to type out the quotes. Any mistakes are my own, as Schwartz makes no mistake in her own prose, pointing out the fad that is the use of present tense in 1987, comparing it the mini-skirt of decades earler
Likewise, the present tense has gone beyond stylish to positively de riguer, so that a writer of my age will try it on in the privacy of her boudoir, wistfully regarding her image and thinking: Can I? Should I? Will I pass or simply look ridiculous? (Schwartz, Lynne Sharon. "Remembrance of Tense Past." New England Review and Bread Loaf Quarterly 10.2 (1987): 234-51. Web.)
Schwartz doesn't stop her comparison to the miniskirt with a declaration of faddishness, though she does make it clear that like any fad, present tense is used by many beginning authors not only because so many of their contemporaries are doing the same, but also because it can simultaneously create a safe, repeatable style and absolve the author of considering the trajectory of their fiction.

This desire for a safe sameness is not the sole decision of the author, since many are trying to make writing their profession, and if the market wants McDonald's burgers, then McDonald's is going to make burgers, dammit! Even now, when consumers bemoan their actors, actresses, singers, songwriters to "just do their jobs and stop giving me their opinion" is it any wonder the author wants to make their voice as unobtrusive as possible?

But present tense doesn't have to be same or the same, and Schwartz brings forward some wonderful examples that don't, but she shows that present tense gives an illusion of immediacy that provides cover for bland writing and a simple sameness that Le Guin calls 'McProse'.

I may blog more about his essay. It's eighteen pages of musing and analysis, all around the use of verb tense. Possibly the most provocative section for me was this:
Despite the recent wave of censorship, we in the West still possess the freedom to ssay safely in fiction almost anything about ourselves or our society: safely, meaning we will never be thrown in jail or be shunned by our neighbors, though we may be shunned by publishes and certain schools and libraries. We can speculate about the universe unhindereed as well as write of the intimacies of private lives as we please. This should yield a gorgeous array of possibilities. How are writers using their freedom? Besides doing sexually explicit things on a page, contemporary characters tend towards a vauge nihilism and lead passive, meaningless, or unexamined and unexamining lives. But this is hardly original. Bungled or wasted lives are amng traditional fiction's most fertile and hallowed themes. Nor are they being handled with startling originality. (Ibid.)
I know if I posted this paragraph in an open forum on Scribophile, I'd have to invest in fainting couch futures, and the thread would be quickly closed down. No one likes to have their work vaguely nihilistic or meaningless. Not to mention the horde of apologists that will run out and ask why is it such a crime to write basic, unchallenging work as long as it sells. And will no one speak for the pornographers writers of erotica? Schwartz is just another Social Justice Warrior, who isn't as successful as Stephanie Meyer.

I don't know how to answer that. I don't even care to. I have a day job but hope to be as comfortable in my authorial voice as I am in my income. I don't think I'd want those streams to cross because I love my freedom from the desires of the market.

Readership and publishing has changed, is changing, will change again. I don't post Schwartz's quote as an admonishment of every other writer. I put it up to make sure I examine my own authorship and the characters and tense I use.

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