Leith on life

Non-fiction writers should stop using the present tense
August 24, 2011

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 bit like writing. So it ends up in the present tense.

In de Waal’s book, the use of the present tense amounts to a defect of technique: if events in the past (your family’s history) and events in the present (your “journey” to uncover that history) are both largely told in the present tense, you don’t so much summon a Proustian miasma as make it hard for the reader to keep track of what’s going on. And are the accounts of Viktor’s nervous tic, or the smell of the kitchens, or the way “the children in the dressing room choose their favourite carving and play with it on the pale yellow carpet” to be understood as sourced from diaries, or as flights of authorial reimagining? This style of narration collapses time, and collapses distinctions between things-in-the-world and things-in-the-mind.

I don’t single out The Hare With Amber Eyes because it’s necessarily the worst of its kind. It is agonisingly self-regarding, but De Waal, a potter, writes with sensitivity about objects—their volumes and surfaces, the way they occupy space. But it exhibits the worst affectations of the mission memoir in high relief—and what’s least good in it is destined to be most imitated.

In a mission memoir the author’s “journey”—the same naff trope as in reality TV— is foregrounded. A comical extreme comes in VS Naipaul’s The Masque of Africa, in which the old booby spends pages moaning about the inadequacies of his hotel rooms or, on one occasion, expressing exasperation that a taxi-driver he stood up for hours had the effrontery to be annoyed about it.

In this style, facts and ideas are of interest, primarily, by virtue of passing through the author’s consciousness. It is not for the writer to evaluate an idea or test the authenticity of a feeling: it is enough to experience and record it. De Waal is at this constantly: “If there has to be a first owner of my wolf, I want him to be Swann,” he tells us. Or at another point “This is a very complex place to send the netsuke to, I think, as I circle back to the Palais Ephrussi towards dusk, feeling calmer.”

In some ways, this is almost a definition of literary sensibility: the world’s brute data marshalled and alchemised in the writer’s mind. But in history-as-memoir it is a self- canonising stance: a formal pose that presents self-absorption as a virtue rather than a vice. In non-fiction, with rare exceptions, the correct weighting is subject front; author behind and to one side. The mission-memoir is literary in the same way that misery-memoirs are inspirational. Let’s not get carried away.