On Friday I was lucky enough to catch the Will Self lecture at BHASVIC in Brighton. The event was organised by City Books, a local bookseller that provides enthusiastic support for authors established and emerging. They are such a great advert for the importance of the independent book shop and are always happy to stock and promote local authors, display posters for spoken word events and put on shows like this one. Love or loathe his writing (and he does tend to polarise) Self is knowledgeable, entertaining and more than a little scary. There to discuss his new novel, Umbrella (long-listed for this year’s Man Booker Prize) he took to the stage and immediately jettisoned the malfunctioning microphone in favour of projection. He fixed us with a steely glare, explained what the book was about and then provided a theatrical reading complete with Frankie Howerd accents.

Umbrella is a modernist work, about the past but written stream of consciousness style in the continuous present. It flits around between four points of view, across almost a century. There are few paragraph breaks let alone chapters and absolutely no similes or metaphors. Self thinks that modern literary fiction is too chock full of similes and metaphors and that people don’t actually think that way at all. I have heard him talk about the nature of human thought before, how most writing gets nowhere near how we actually think. It’s an interesting discussion. Is it necessary for human thought to be rendered precisely on the page? He obviously thinks so.

I am not so sure that we don’t think in metaphors though, in fact I think I do all the time. I might leave the odd word out here and there but I often compare a scene to something else. In that room, for instance, Will Self was positively hawk-like and we were his intellectual prey. The friend I was with told me later she had a burning question but was too intimidated to ask it. My own mind went totally blank as I tried to digest the information I was bombarded with.

Writing the past in the continuous present is a provocative choice isn’t it? The tutors on my degree course weren’t at all happy when you did this – go away and read Thackeray again, was the verdict.

And it’s not only creative writing tutors, in her recent review of Frances Osborne’s turn of the century novel Park Lane, Julie Burchill wrote the following,

Maybe I’m just a middle-aged fuss-bucket, but I hate the present tense used in any representation of history, be it fact or fiction.

I find this view extremely hard to take because I am predisposed to write fiction in the present tense no matter when it is set. Writing the past in the past, in my mind, takes something away from it, sets it at arm’s length and makes it less satisfying.

Isn’t this why costume drama is so popular? Because it puts us right in the middle of the past. When we follow Christopher Tietjens into the trenches, or Don Draper along Madison Avenue, we’re right there with them, and not watching through some sort of past tense looking glass (though I’m pretty sure we just watch Downton Abbey for the frocks and silly one-liners). You will say that television drama and the novel aren’t the same, but surely they have the same goal, for the consumer to be lost in the world of the text, visual or otherwise.  Isn’t it silly to constrain the creation of that text with some outmoded rule about tense?

The story I am working on at the moment has the past set in the present and the present set in the past. I have really thought this through; it isn’t an unconscious flaw, as my tutors would have had it. I want to make the past immediate and vital and to show that the present is inexorably influenced by it – hence the time shift. It may not or may not work, we’ll have to see, but I’m having fun trying.

Self said that the world of the past, even the recent past like the 50s would be like an alien world to us, we wouldn’t get many cultural references, products and language would all be a bit off kilter and we’d have to work to decipher it. He didn’t use any literature from the time in researching the world of Umbrella because it wasn’t representative of the majority, instead collecting visual stimuli such as advertising, photographs, early movies and linguistic markers in the popular press and Chambers Slang Dictionary. The passage he read concerned a visit to turn of the century London by the young female protagonist and her rather dubious father, and it was a roller-coaster of description, visual and auditory, with thought and dialogue merged. It is easy to see the influence of Joyce (the book has been compared to Ulysses in many reviews) but also of Dickens (something commented on by a member of the audience.) There were many indecipherable terms and cultural references, but the author insisted that it is also the responsibility of the reader to create, and that we are now perfectly placed to uncover things we don’t understand by use of technology. He has a point; the way we read is changing. You can now use your i-pad to read a book, watch archive footage of when it is set and look up any unfathomable dialogue. Equally, you can just accept that you don’t need to define everything and immerse yourself in the general flow of it all, revelling in a story unfolding in the present even if it is set in the past. After all, we don’t actually understand everything that happens in every minute of our day. Life would be very boring if we did. I have always been the sort of reader that likes to work at it, and when I write I hate tying everything up neatly for the reader, it’s too dull, and I think there should always be room for interpretation.

The passage Self read to us certainly made the past vital, our senses were assaulted at every angle and we really had to concentrate just to keep up. On the printed page the thoughts that come to the fore in this stream of consciousness are helpfully printed in italics, and Self warned us that it was hard to read in italics but he would do his best to emphasise. After the reading, my friend’s unasked question was this, she agreed that the past was made immediate by the passage but found it to be lacking emotion, that the young girl never said how she felt, and that people do generally comment internally on what they are feeling, was it written so the reader provided the emotion?

I haven’t read the whole book yet but I went away and started with the passage that had been read out. My friend is right, feelings are not discussed in any way, but for me the words in italics provide the clues as to what the character is feeling, and enable the reader to arrive at the emotion in a way which is impossible when the work is read to them. Is this satisfying?  It’s early days, but it’s working for me so far.