Bring Up the Bodies: Tense in the Present

Challenging readers or just annoying them?

I’ve got a confession to make: I started Wolf Hall  when it first appeared in paperback but gave up about 200 pages in. I had high hopes that I’d like it since historical fiction is near and dear to my heart but I put it down and walked away. At the time, I found it irritating in the extreme. It’s set in an incredible period of English history with colourful characters and bags of intrigue but…written in the present tense. I did try and adjust to this, as well as to the complicated syntax and convoluted prose. In the end, I admitted defeat, miffed with Hilary Mantel and myself.

Now she’s scored another hit with a record-breaking second Man Booker Prize for the sequel, Bring Up the Bodies. It’s got me thinking again about writing and the implicit contract between authors and their readers. Rather Marmite-like, people are polarised by these books. Today I read an exchange in the Daily Telegraph comments section between two people. The first criticized BUtB for pretty much the same reasons I did above with Wolf Hall. The other person commented: “So how many books have you written?” This reaction misses the point. A reader has every right to criticise a work they’ve read whether they themselves are published or not.

Mantel wrote in the present tense as a device to bridge the time gap and give a sense of immediacy to events several lifetimes past (I assume). Somehow helping the reader to get inside the head of the protagonist, Thomas Cromwell. And frankly, that is just going to antagonize some readers. Present tense for writing historical fiction has always been frowned on—even considered amateurish for those who have tried. Until Hilary succeeded in it despite the odds.

Difficult prose for its own sake shows a disregard for the reader. But Mantel’s books (and they are a challenge to readers) are rich in texture, intricately composed,  cranky but ultimately beautifully written. And they show immense research of the time period: language, social mores, tastes, smells, sound and vision. It’s probably the closest any of us will actually get to time travel.

Every book isn’t necessarily for everyone. But any work of historical fiction that succeeds like these books have done, deserves to be feted. And given a second chance by those who were frustrated by its challenge. So I’m going to start fresh with Wolf Hall again. I was probably in a bad mood when I first tried reading it anyway.

Advertisements

3 comments

  1. Clifford,

    A very interesting and though-provoking piece. I must admit that having been made to read novels where you are supposed to inhabit the mind of the main protagonist, I never enjoyed them as much as I did those novels where I was an observer of the action.

    I suspect that with historical fiction the problem becomes more difficult. To ‘inhabit’ the mind of someone from the past, you have to be in empathy with them … and not just in terms of their motivations and reactions, but also in terms of the limitations of the society in which they function. In a modern world where I can read what you have written, consider what you have said, and then reply within a matter of minutes, the ability to empathise with someone who writes a letter that may take weeks to reach its recipient – and then has to wait weeks for a reply – is difficult for many people, me included.

    When reading historical fiction I like to be outside the action, looking in. Being divorced from it; being at arms length; and being an observer. It does not mean that I cannot understand the motivations and reactions of the characters – a good writer will convey that to me – but it does give me the opportunity to be judgemental about what they do … and to learn from that.

    My rambling two pennyworth … for what it is worth!

    Bob Cordery

  2. Very interesting, Clifford. I loved Wolf Hall once I got past the first few hundred pages and into Mantel’s unusual style. I’m finding ButB easier going but with less charm, perhaps because Cromwell is getting murkier or I’m more used to the style. But I definitely think its a book you need settle into, needing longer stretches of time, which I don’t have at the moment. Good luck with your new attempt.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s