Writing about Literature: Using the Literary Present

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Books as presents

When I say literary present, I’m not talking about receiving a Barnes and Noble gift card on your birthday. The literary present refers to the custom of using present tense verbs when writing about events that take place in a work of fiction.

It is correct, for example, to say, “Gatsby discovers that the American dream is not so easily attained.” Notice the simple predicate is “discovers” not “discovered.” Although a sentence like this sounds natural to most of us, students who are just beginning to write literary analysis tend to find the past tense more comfortable. It takes some instruction and lots of practice to develop the habit of using the literary present.

Remember; this is only the rule for works of fiction. When writing about history and historical works, use the past tense. But fictional stories live on in perpetuity. They transcend time — even if the story is set clearly in some moment of history. Ahab and Hamlet die at the end of their stories, but they live on.

Using the literary present isn’t always as easy as it sounds. Sometimes you have to jump around in time when talking about a story in order to make sense:

Harry soon realizes that the man he had seen at the train station will become his nemesis.

The sentence is essentially in the present tense (realizes), but the past perfect (had seen) and future (will become) are needed to make the sentence clear. It would be confusing to write:

Harry soon realizes that the man he sees at the train station becomes his nemesis.

It’s also important to differentiate between historical information about the book and the events in the book itself. Use past tense for the former:

Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. Dalloway in 1927, in which the title character struggles to understand her place in society.

In general, when writing about fiction, try to remember that the events of the book occur in the present, not the past. Talk about them that way.

*****

Something on your mind? We’d love to hear it. Leave a comment below.

 

About the Author

Brian Wasko

Brian WaskoBrian is the founder and president of WriteAtHome.com. One of his passions is to teach young people how to write better.View all posts by Brian Wasko

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  114. Oliver
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    This should be ‘he has left the document.’ If you’re writing in present tense, you would use present perfect and not past perfect. Past perfect links two points in the past—present perfect links a point in the past to the present, and that’s what’s happening in the sentence (the action is effectively happening in the present). I am convinced by this.

    • Oliver
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      Second sentence should read: If you’re writing in Present Simple, you would use…

      • Oliver
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        I teach English Grammar btw. If you lose your keys and someone asks you why you’re so bummed, you don’t say, ‘I had lost my keys!’—you say, ‘I have lost my keys!’

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          but did anyone ask tho? ;) ))

          • Dude
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            I did though

          • Dude
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            I did though :/

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            or did you

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      You are correct, Oliver. I changed the sentence entirely.

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  116. Linda M Au
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    Could the Harry sentence read differently? How about this?

    “When he arrives, Harry realizes that he has left the document in his apartment and has to return for it.”

    It sounds natural this way too, but I’m curious what the norm is for this style of analysis/writing.

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      Yes, that might work, though I think “had left” is clearer, since he the leaving took place prior to the discovering. In a sense, it is still “left.”

      “Has to return” works fine. Maybe even better than “will have to return.”

      I had a hard time thinking of an example of a sentence that required shifting tenses.

      The norm is to stay in the present tense unless shifting tense is necessary to maintain chronological clarity.

      Thanks for the question!

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