Writing about fiction requires a convention known as the "literary present,” meaning you must use present tense verbs to describe the action in the story or novel. Melanie Dawson and Joe Essid, of the University of Richmond Writing Center, explain that this approach treats the action of the book as if it is currently happening. While this may seem arbitrary, the purpose of the convention is to convey that the action of the book is ongoing, relived by each reader, each time the book is opened.
Use present tense when describing a work’s genre, style, reputation or value, because the work is an artifact that continues to “live” in the culture. For instance, a paper about the medieval Japanese “Tale of Genji” might describe its iconic status: “This is the first modern novel.” Similarly, “Scholars consider it, rightfully, to be a masterpiece.” The present tense is correct, even though the book was written in the 11th century.
To summarize the narrative of a work of fiction, also use present tense. A paper about Ray Bradbury’s “Fahrenheit 451” might recap some of the novel’s action: “Montag escapes the robotic hound and flees on the river.” Even when the action has a sequence, use the present tense: “After Montag saves some of Mrs. Hudson’s books and smuggles them home, he begins to feel alienated from his wife and coworkers.” The modifiers -- in this case, the preposition “after” -- make the timeline clear without breaking the consistency of the literary present tense. You can also use the present perfect tense along with the present tense to clarify the order of events: "After Montag has saved some of Mrs. Hudson's books and smuggled them home, he begins to feel alienated from his wife and coworkers."
When introducing quotations from fiction, use present tense, but the quotation itself must retain whatever tense the original passage uses. Any material enclosed within quotation marks must be identical in spelling and wording to the source. This sentence might come from an essay about Voltaire’s satire “Candide”: “The motley group settles into their Turkish farm, where, Voltaire concludes, ‘Their little plot of land produced plentiful crops.’” Both “settles” and “tells” use literary present tense, but “produced” preserves the original quotation's past tense verb.
In some cases, you may use past tense when writing about literature, but only when you are specifically placing the work or author within their historical context. In writing about “The Tale of Genji,” for instance, you might write: “Murasiki Shikibu was a noblewoman in the court of Heian-era Japan.” The past tense “was” is appropriate because the sentence concerns the author’s real life, historically situated in a particular time period, not the work itself. Similarly, you could correctly write of Bradbury, “His writing career began, in a way, at age 12 when he met a carnival magician named Electrico.” The same rule holds true for historical events: “The 1755 Lisbon earthquake, which Voltaire recounts in 'Candide,' killed 30,000 people in a mere six minutes.” “Recounts” must be in literary present tense, while “killed” refers to the real historical event.
- University of Richmond Writing Center: Verbs: Past Tense? Present?; Melanie Dawson and Joe Essid
- Purdue University Online Writing Lab: Quoting, Paraphrasing and Summarizing
- Background of The Tale of Genji; Craig Emmott
- Ray Bradbury Official Homepage
- Voltaire Society of America: On the Earthquake of Lisbon, to M. Tronchin of Lyons
Jennifer Spirko has been writing professionally for more than 20 years, starting at "The Knoxville Journal." She has written for "MetroPulse," "Maryville-Alcoa Daily Times" and "Some" monthly. She has taught writing at North Carolina State University and the University of Tennessee. Spirko holds a Master of Arts from the Shakespeare Institute, Stratford-on-Avon, England.