Non-fiction writers should stop using the present tenseby Sam Leith / August 24, 2011 / Leave a comment
Back in the 1990s, the success of Dava Sobel’s clever little book Longitude did something strange to the publishing industry. A collective frenzy possessed the makers of non-fiction, and soon we were knee-deep in biographies of inanimate objects—salt, nutmeg, zero, you name it—with titles like Tycho Brahe’s Nose: The Remarkable True Story of the Golden Conk that Gave Birth to Modern Astronomy. As long as it wasn’t a human being, it was hot, hot, hot.
Forgive me for bringing it up—most of us have long since made our peace with those days and moved on. But unless urgent preventative measures are taken, something similar is about to happen again. Over the last couple of years we’ve seen the rise in a genre you might call the “mission memoir.” Now that a prime exponent of the form—The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, Edmund de Waal’s account of tracing his family’s netsuke collection through 19th and 20th-century Europe—has gone as it were multiple platinum, the stage is set for an outright epidemic.
In 1968, Norman Mailer’s book The Armies of the Night, described the same set of events from two perspectives; its two parts are labelled History as a Novel/The Novel as History. We are now offered a mushier bifurcation: History as Memoir/ The Memoir as a Novel. In imitation of literary fiction—and as if to parallel all those novels about someone writing a novel—this type of book makes a memoir out of the attempt to write a book, a subject of the process of doing the research.
You might remember that not long ago, Philips Pullman and Hensher were both quoted lamenting the spread of present-tense narration in fiction. The complaint was, roughly, that the babyish idea that the present tense makes stories “vivid” had become general: a tricky technique, best used sparingly and consideringly, was being adopted unthinkingly as the norm, and in the process becoming a cliché.
They were right, but missed a trick in focusing on fiction. The present tense—one of the defining characteristics of the mission memoir—is now spreading like grey squirrels through non-fiction. “I went to the British Library and read some books” doesn’t sound very exciting. “I am sitting in the British Library. I can hear the murmur of librarians. On the desk in front of me is a book Karl Marx once held in his hands,” on the other hand, sounds a…