The Present Tense and Jam Tortillas: Phillip Pullman in Discussion With A Straw Man
PP: Nowadays, it seems to me that every young writer is writing about marmalade sandwiches. How I loathe this monstrous, heathen trend! Sandwiches are, at heart, flawed because they are layered. There is no depth to a sandwich – only endless layers. I pray heartily that we may go back to writing about jam tortillas instead. All of our noblest authors – Henry James, Chekhov, Colin Forbes – wrote about jam tortillas. And that was because only jam tortillas can explore the true nature of reality.
Writing about marmalade sandwiches is exactly like using hand-held cameras in cinema, in that they’re both moderately popular in their media at the moment, or, at least, they’re getting a lot of media coverage at the moment, which is the same thing. Two years ago I might have said that writing about marmalade sandwiches is exactly like torture porn.
Of course, to suggest that marmalade sandwiches are currently popular because writers are attempting to reflect our more immersive, more heat-of-the-moment culture, with varying degrees of success, is nonsense. No, it’s all the fault of creative writing courses. As usual! Damn them to hell! It’s all because they want their students to write more ‘vividly’ without fear of the consequences! What’s that you’re mumbling, straw man?
SM: Let these creative writing students write about marmalade sandwiches if it interests them; the talented ones will find new ways to play with the form and the less talented ones will soon be forgotten. Those who constantly blame creative writing courses for the state of modern literature seem to forget, 1) that storytelling itself is open to all, 2) that mediocre writers who copy fashionable trends have always been about, and 3) that good writers can use the same technique and produce something marvellous.
PP: Well, that’s crap, clearly. It is very important to our art that we denounce a stylistic choice, across the board, as flawed and worthless, unless it appears in the larger context of a stylistic choice I personally favour.
What’s that, straw man? You’re going to drop the satirical facade and talk candidly about the present tense?
SM: Neither Phillip Pullman nor Phillip Hensher can put their finger quite on why they dislike the present tense. Undoubtedly they have read bad examples of it. Pullman claims it only has one mode of expression (a “scream”), which is patently untrue. If that’s the case, then the act of living itself would be nothing but a scream, the present tense being the tense of experience, not of recollection. There is no reason in the world why the present tense should have less variety of expression than the past; indeed, it will be able to do some things the past tense cannot. It may appear to have less variety of expression because unlike the past tense, it has not been the status quo for the vast majority of classic literature.
Let these words be written on the mountaintop.
“Literary techniques, like technology or a text that attempts to sum up the meaning of life, are morally neutral. Each one will have flaws that a bad writer will succumb to, and that a good writer will overcome; and, likewise, it will have possibilities that a bad writer will ignore, and that a good writer can use. Dismiss no technique, and praise no technique. Their worth is not in themselves, but in their application.”
PP: You really think that will work?
SM: No. I think next September we’ll be reading about how three stories written in the second-person are shortlisted for the Booker, and talking heads will be complaining about how the industry’s being swamped by a flawed technique. Oh, and it’ll be all the fault of creative writing courses.