I've been reading some interesting stuff lately. Interesting in that one of them, Indu Sundaresan's The Splendor of Silence, is written both in present and past tense. No, she doesn't do it all in the same place. The book takes place between 1942 and 1963. It's interesting because the "1963" material is set in and around Seattle. That is where Ms. Sundaresan lives, apparently. Which is nice, because I live in the same area. But the main part of the story takes place in World War 2, in India and Burma(now Myannmar). It revolves around a "grand passion" between an upper-class Indian woman and an American soldier whose brother disappeared in the Indian town he's been sent to. What is interesting is the way present tense is used: in the sections where the daughter who is the result of this affair is cleaning out a cabin in the Cascade foothills(an area I know fairly well), it's in the present tense. Her father has just died, and there's a letter from India that explains the woman's "background". This is all in the present tense. So are the soldier's actions in Burma, just before he goes to India. In these two incidences, the use of present tense makes a certain amount of sense. In the first instance, the "immediacy" present tense implies is dictated by the woman's chaotic feelings when confronted with her father's death. In the second instance, the immediacy is dictated by the soldier's situation: he has to get two friends out of the jungle, and the Japanese are in the area.
The parts about the four days in the town, however, are written in past tense, because presumably the woman in 1963 is reading the letter explaining "where she comes from". That, too makes sense: it's a remembering or recounting of past events. And Ms. Sundaresan is a skilled enough writer to pull this off without leaving the reader asking him or herself why present tense is necessary.
Unfortunately, as I've said earlier, not all writers are skilled enough to do this. In the hands of a less-skilled writer, the use of present tense as a narrative device comes off, at best, as merely annoying. At worst, it feels kind of "precious" and "faddy". I say this, because there seems to be an increasing tendency, across a lot of genres, to write this way. Yes, I know the standard answer that might be given to the question of why. Present tense conveys a kind of "you are there" immediacy to the reader. Or it is supposed to. It also avoids some awkward constructions.
But all too often, I think, people write this way because they don't want to take the time to write more carefully or think out why they need to write in the present tense. For many types of narrative, I don't really think it works all that well. I'm not sure it would work very well in a novel set in, say ancient Egypt. I have to admit I've read very few novels set in ancient Egypt, and none of them were written in the present tense, so it's hard for me to imagine a writer writing about, say, the lives of people building the Pyramids, in the present tense.
And while some science fiction writers use it, I'm not sure it works there, either, even if whatever the author is writing about is set in deep space in the 33rd century. There are some things that are just too jarring for the average reader to handle very well.
Then too, perhaps the author ought to ask him or herself, what s/he is trying to accomplish when writing in any tense. First person past works well for a lot of narratives, though it does restrict the author to that character's point of view. But if you're writing a book from the point of view of some teenager, it might work very well. After all, the teenage years are often "all about me" angst. And present tense can work well when describing a teenager or group of teens; the adolescent years are full of immediacy, at least as far as teenagers are concerned.
But the rest? What on earth is so bad about using plain "old-fashioned" narrative style and letting the story tell itself without embellishment? Perhaps this is too retrgrade for some writers, but when one actually sits down to write, one of the most important considerations for use of any style should be: how well does it serve the story you are telling?