I first noticed this in 2010 when there was a bit of a kerfuffle over the Man Booker Prize shortlist. One-time Booker judge Philip Hensher complained in The Telegraph that three of the six nominees for Britain’s most celebrated literary prize were written in the present tense, a choice he regarded as merely, and annoyingly, “fashionable.” He qualified this:
Done well, it can be nervy and energetic – Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall used it to give Thomas Cromwell’s story an unpredictable edge. But one of the reasons it has spread so much is a thousand low-level creative writing tutors, clinging to the belief that you can “make your writing more vivid” by turning to the present tense. Writing is vivid if it is vivid. A shift of tense won’t do that for you.
As regards talent I think I prefer the expression ‘natural ability’ or ‘natural inclination’—simply because you’re inclined doesn’t mean you’re necessarily able. I’m a natural. Not all writers are. Pretty much anyone can string a sentence together (and what’s a novel but a long string of sentences?) and everyone (arguably, supposedly) has at least one novel within them. I define a writer as a person whose natural response to life is to write about it. That doesn’t make him a good writer—there’re still the matters of technique and plain ol’ practice practice practice—but at least he wants to be there at the coalface every day. Thousands don’t. Oh, they get the odd idea, a witty sentence or two, but mostly they prefer to chillax in front of the telly or down the pub.
I do value feedback and it’s damn hard to get decent feedback, feedback you can truly trust but I’m still not sure I fancy sitting around while a jury of my peers shreds my latest effort in front of me. On the whole I’ve come to trust myself. When I finally hand a book over to a beta reader I fully expect them to highlight the odd typo but that’s it. I’m honest enough with myself that I’d never try to pass off something as finished that I knew needed more work. I’m a careful writer to start off with. That doesn’t hurt. I’m not a dumper and sifter. I have no problems with those who are and some decent writers are—I know from talking to Jeanette Winterson (briefly at a book signing—let’s not pretend we’re best buds or anything) that that’s exactly how she works—but I’m no good with messes and I’ll hardly have written a single sentence before I’m fiddling with it. Everyone’s entitled to their opinion but at the end of the day you’re the writer and you make the final cut. You can’t please all the people all the time. It’s hard enough to please any of the people any of the time. At the very least you can please yourself and if your book doesn’t please you then you’re not done with it.
And, oh, for the record my last two books were in the present tense but as they were both written in dialogue it’s kinda hard to do them any other way.