As an English Literature and Language Arts major, a public relations intern at YARN, and a book reviewer for Boekie’s Book Reviews, I can often be found reading one of two things: classic novels and young adult fiction.
I can read a young adult novel in one sitting, but it takes me much longer to read a classic. After growing increasingly frustrated with how long it was taking me to complete my homework, I decided to figure out what was so different between classics and YA, what was making those classics so darn slow for me—I mean, I am not a slow reader, but page for page, classics take me longer.
And here’s what I found: The majority of classics are written in third person, past tense whereas the majority of young adult novels are written in first person, present tense. To find these results, I randomly surveyed 30 books from my classic bookcase and 30 books from my young adult bookcase (It would have been more if I was actually home with my bookcases and didn’t have to drive my sister insane on the phone for over an hour); see the graphs on the right.
So what do these results mean? What do narration and tense have to do with my reading speed? In order to answer these questions, I looked at how first person, present tense and third person, past tense work in two different novels that nicely represent this common difference.
George Orwell’s “1984” and Veronica Roth’s “Divergent” are two dystopian novels that address similar themes: What should you do when you do not agree with the masses, and what’s love got to do with it?
This is the first paragraph of “1984”: “It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen. Winston Smith, his chin nuzzled into his breast in an effort to escape the vile wind, slipped quickly through the glass doors of Victory Mansions, though not quickly enough to prevent a swirl of gritty dust from entering along with him” (YARN’s italics). In this first paragraph, we are presented with description. It was a bright, cold, and windy day in April. There is nothing strange about a bright, cold, windy day in April. A man walked quickly into a building. There is nothing strange about a man walking quickly into a building. Additionally, Orwell’s use of past tense verbs diminishes any sense of urgency.
Throughout the first eighteen pages of “1984,” Orwell continues to provide past tense description and back story. He spices things up a bit by describing a world that seems quite different from the world his readers live in, a world with Big Brother, the war-waging Ministry of Peace, and telescreens that cover entire walls. But there is nothing unusual about this world to the main character; it just is, and the past tense makes it feel like it’s been that way for a while, which again makes the situation feel less bizarre.
Orwell’s use of third person also keeps readers distanced from Winston. We occasionally enter Winston’s mind, but it is not until page eighteen that we learn his true feelings about the strange world he inhabits, and even then, his thoughts are only revealed through action, not interiority: Without realizing what he is doing, Winston writes “DOWN WITH BIG BROTHER” in the diary he is not supposed to have. This is a crime, and Winston knows that the Thought Police will arrive at any minute. At the end of the chapter, they do. George Orwell has hooked us by the end of his first chapter, but it took him quite a while to do so.
Now, here is the first paragraph of “Divergent”: “There is one mirror in my house. It is behind a sliding panel in the hallway upstairs. Our faction allows me to stand in front of it on the second day of every third month, the day my mother cuts my hair” (YARN’s italics). The second word of “Divergent” is a present tense verb. This brings us into the novel’s world because it shows us that this story is starting right now. And the story is not starting on a seemingly ordinary day. There is nothing normal about only looking in a mirror four times per year. Roth forces readers to immediately move on to the next paragraph by making readers want to find out what neither they nor the characters already know.
Whereas Orwell spends the majority of his twenty-page first chapter on back story, in keeping with the past-tense quality of his verbs, Roth throws her characters into conflict on the second page of her novel. Tomorrow, Beatrice will choose her faction: Candor, Abnegation, Dauntless, Amity, or Erudite. If she chooses a faction other than Abnegation, she will no longer be with her family. This is not an ordinary day for Beatrice, and her first person narration tells readers that: “On these mornings when my brother makes breakfast, and my father’s hand skims my hair as he reads the newspaper, and my mother hums as she clears the table—it is on these mornings that I feel guiltiest for wanting to leave them.”
Whereas Orwell barely lets us into Winston’s mind at the end of his first chapter, Roth immediately shows us Beatrice’s most secret thoughts. Her use of first person pulls us right into the novel by making us care about her main character.
Although I have just discussed the first chapters of two novels, this structure is common throughout many classic and young adult novels. And I believe this difference in structure is the reason why it takes me so much longer to read classics than it does to read YA.
Young adult novels start strong at the beginning and rarely lose that strength. Young adult novels are fast-paced. Young adult novels create a sense of urgency in their readers.
They do this with first person, present tense narration. When characters talk to me in their own words, I am desperate to know what happens to them. When I read “I” over and over again, I can relate to the character because I feel like I am the character. When a novel is written in present tense, I cannot put it down because I do not know if the characters are going to make it through this.
Third person, past tense is different. It is harder for me as a reader to become a character, even when the narrator does give readers access to a character’s thoughts. The past tense verbs further distance readers from characters by showing that the characters know something that readers do not.
And that is why, although I love the classics, I think I will always read young adult novels more often than classics. I want that desperation, that urgency. I want to need to know. And through first person, present tense narration, young adult fiction makes me do just that.