Look, for the moment will you just assume that if I’m not around for a bit my health problems have temporarily caught up with me and leave it at that. Otherwise we are all going to get sick to the back teeth of my apologising for my tardiness all the while. I’m here today and that’s what matters.
Mind you, I might very well not be. I thought I was going to spontaneously combust the other day, which given that I was in a library at the time might have led to a conflagration similar to that which destroyed the library at Alexandria. Although, to compare one of our small branch libraries to a wonder of the ancient world is, I suppose, a tad fanciful.
And what caused this disturbance to my equilibrium? It was the declaration by someone who had just been berating the others in the reading group for not only never discussing style but having no idea what constituted good style, that she never read a book that was written in the first person. “If I open a book and see that it is all I, I, I, I close it straight away and put the book down. No one ever wrote a good book like that.”
Talk about a brick wall.
And it was a brick wall there was no point in trying to climb over, either. If I’d suggested that novels such as David Copperfield, Great Expectations, The Moonstone, and Jane Eyre might reasonably be thought to have some merit I suspect she wouldn’t have accepted that they were first person. Or if I’d found copies and proved it, she would probably have told me that she’d always thought they were overrated anyway. What do you do when you encounter someone who is that closed minded?
Of course, every reader has her or his preferences where narrative, lexical or grammatical style is concerned, but for me part of the pleasure of reading is suddenly finding a writer who opens up an aspect of style I’ve previously had difficulty with and shows me how effective it can be in the right hands and the appropriate circumstances. I can remember a time when I would balk at novels written in the present tense until I came across one (which, I am ashamed to say I can’t remember the title of) that used it to convey the minute by minute horror of a woman whose child had been abducted. To have portrayed those frantic hours in past tense wouldn’t have been anywhere near as effective. As it was, I lived each moment of her terror with her and with none of the reassurance that at least she survived the experience that a past tense rendering would have provided.
These days it takes me a couple of pages to really notice what the chosen tense is, not only because it has become less unusual for a writer to use present tense, but also because I have come to see the potential of the choice in the appropriate narrative environment. Would Elly Griffiths’ books, for example, really be so engaging without their rather sardonic third person present tense narrator? I think not.
So, what am I going to do about this brick wall? Absolutely nothing, I’ve decided. I can recognise a battle that can’t be won when I see one and I’m not going to expend any energy even trying. In the end the loss is hers not mine. It is, however, a salutary lesson to us all. Are we hiding behind a brick wall and refusing to even peek over it? I will have to check my own prejudices and make sure I’m not using them to frame a construction that is preventing me from exploring new and exciting work.