As an historical novelist who most often writes in the present tense, I have come up against the nay-sayers on more than one occasion. One reviewer commented upon my audacity at daring, as a not overly literary writer, to use the 'Mantelian' present tense, which raised a a chuckle. Many other writers have used the present historic to great effect.
The present tense is the mode of drama, it is the mode of conversation, so why not too, the mode of story telling? There are obvious reasons why it works in historical fiction where the protagonist's fate is usually well known. Even if the reader is aware of the outcome, there is tension and drama in that the character is not. Philippa Gregory uses this effectively in The Boleyn Inheritance when Catherine Howard is about to be carted off to the Tower. She still believes she will be pardoned when her uncle Norfolk comes to tell her she is to die.
'You should acknowledge your sins, and ask forgiveness,' he says promptly.
I am so relieved I could almost weep. Of course I will be forgiven if I say I am sorry.
I do not know who cries it, she or I: I reel away unnerved. But in the second I have her skin between my fingers, my own flesh leaps in a kind of relief. I shake horribly for almost an hour.
'Oh, God!' I say, hiding my face. 'I'm afraid, for my own mind! Do you think me mad? Do you think me wicked, Sue?'
'Wicked?' she answers, wringing her hands. and I can see her thinking: A simple girl like you?
Waters's subterfuge is clever here because, as it turns out, neither girl is what we first think and so the tense they narrate their stories in works as a key to our overall understanding. But the action is almost subliminal because, if the writing is good enough, the reader, lulled into the voice and world of the novel, loses awareness of the tricks perpetrated by the author.
Fiction is, by its very nature, a deceptive art and writers have only a limited number of tools at their disposal: mostly grammatical; so the use of tense is crucial to the crafting of a novel. To simply use the past tense because we are recounting past events is missing the point. after all, any narration is necessarily describing past events, even if they happened only a few moments ago. Novelists are creating an artificial world and how better to bring the distant past, its sounds, smells, textures, the inner worlds of its inhabitants, to life, than to speak of it as if it's happening now.
The aforementioned Stephan Zweig moves between tenses like a conjurer. In Beware of Pity he introduces his story in the voice of a kind of faux author; a writer who encounters a man, a so called, 'historically authentic hero,' Hofmiller, in a cafe. The story is then told as if from Hofmiller's mouth, going back in time twenty years, and shifting in an apparently casually conversational manner between past and present tense:
So one afternoon – it must have been the middle of May 1914 – I was sitting in the cake shop with one of my occasional partners...We had long ago finished playing our usual three games, and were just idly talking about this or that... but the conversation was drowsy, and as slow as the smoke from a cigarette burning down.
At this point the door suddenly opens, and a pretty girl in a fulll-skirted dress is swept in on a gust of fresh air...
It is sometimes said that the 'fashion' for the present tense is the result of the ubiquitous Creative Writing MA, with the suggestion that it is the preferred tense of such courses. This is nonsense of course, the use of the present tense is more a natural progression of Modernism, via authors like Zweig, in which writers strive to build ever more convincing worlds and climb further into the minds of their characters. So it could be seen as a contemporary style, and let's not forget that even historical fiction is contemporary fiction. John Humphries can harrumph all he likes, I'm most definitely in the Kate Williams camp, and firmly believe it is a shame to prescribe and limit modes of storytelling.
I'm most interested to know your views...