Thursday, April 14, 2011

First Person Present Tension

L. Scribe Harris recently did a blog on first-person present-tense in current YA genre fiction and I felt compelled to respond a) because it was a fantastic topic and b) because I'm justifiably furious at having wasted an hour of my life writing her a damn near essay-length comment only to have Blogger come back at me with its infamous "We're sorry but we cannot complete this request--so we completely deleted everything you wrote. Back button you say? Pssh, naaw'man! We're just gonna reset to square one, mmmk..? Mmk."

I'll begin by pointing out that if you haven't already read it, you should probably read Scribe's blog first for this to make any kind of sense. Really. I insist that you do or this will all just come out sounding like the inane ramblings of a neurotic, misanthropic, glass-is-half-fucked madwoman. But then again.. if it walks like a duck and quacks like a duck and blogs like a neurotic, misanthropic, glass-is-half-fucked madwoman, then it's probably a duck cosplaying me. Right?

So before my chagrin for Blogger subsides and I resume my three-week productivity moratorium, let the bitching commence!

First off, you should probably be aware that I do not claim to be any kind of expert on what exactly is the latest and greatest in YA fiction. Hell, I'll be the first to admit that I've been more or less shunning the classification ever since barely-edited fanfiction and poorly-disguised-Twilight/Harry Potter/yadayada clones began showing up in hardback with $16-$26 price tags. Nevertheless, one can never truly separate oneself from one's roots, and many of my most beloved authors still reside in the currently-Robert-Pattinson-poster-spangled section of the bookstore. Thus, I've done my best to stay informed, though I thank all that is good and holy for the John Greens, Neal Shustermans, Garth Nixs, and Robin McKinleys that still exist.

While I agree with Scribe's observation that first person present tense accommodates our culture of "short, fast, and now", I can't help but think that there are further sociological implications as well. In a world where any one-eyed, foul-mouthed halfwit with a soap box and a webcam can become an instant internet celebrity, the words "narcissism" and "hyper-egocentrism" also come to mind. Perhaps, young people of the 2000-somethings (and no, I'm not an exception) are less likely to engross themselves in anything unless it's two inches from their noses and immediately tangential to the story of their own life.

At the risk of sounding like every disgruntled social sciences professor EVER, we already know that American youth nowadays vote less, shop more, and are 100x more likely to kill themselves because their peers taunted them in grade school than ever knowing any true hardship or any direct side effect or war, famine or pestilence.

So how do you make a girl who shoots her own food and doesn't experience the feeling of a full stomach until her sixteenth year of life sympathetic? Or make an unforgiving futuristic hegemony that controls every aspect of life from birth to love seem relevant?

First person present tense? Sure. Okay. I get it. I'll buy it.

But seriously, a boy that comes from a family of curse workers and goes to a dark paranormal private school...? What's to be gained by using the present tense here? Is there something that the immediacy of the present tense can accomplish that the fantasy aspect of a fantasy novel cannot?? Even School Library Journal points out that there are places in the novel "where the action is confusing and clarity appears sacrificed for expediency". I'm not making this shit up, people. School Library Journal wrote it and Amazon posted it. Amazon who is trying to make money by selling this book posted that as the first editorial review on the product page.

Red flag much? In my humble opinion, clarity should never EVER be sacrificed for style. (Unless your first name is Anthony and your last name is Burgess) *End rant*

On the other hand, I suppose this current rash of overusing first person present tense makes Twilight look like a literary classic... Now how do you like them immortal-sparkly-obsessive-stalkery apples?

So before I wax too (much more) jaded and pessimistic, I will sign off on a note of hope: Hope to God or whatever's sacred to you that your favorite authors--YA or otherwise--stay brave against the dreaded forces of fashion-frackers. And until I get the "all clear" signal from my handy-dandy YA-screeners (AKA friends), I'll be in the adult sci-fi/fantasy section, clinging desperately to tried-and-true comfort of first and third person past tense.