Reading Like a Writer: How to be both and Fighting Words

Posted on Mon, Dec 21 2015 9:00 am by Allison Wyss


Ali Smith's How to be both is a novel about a contemporary teenage girl in England whose mother has died and about the ghost of a fifteenth-century Italian painter who must pretend to be a man. It's a dazzling book that plays with time and many other things. It is divided into two sections, which appear in a different order depending on the edition that you read.

My version starts with George, the teenage girl. It's told from a third-limited perspective, aligned with her.

To be more specific, it starts as follows:

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment, George's mother says to George who's sitting in the front passenger seat.

Not says. Said.

George's mother is dead.

What's the moral conundrum? George says.

I'm very interested in that "Not says. Said." It does so much for the story.

I should start with its simplest function: it's where the author explains her unusual choice of tense.

Most writers find that the easiest way to transition cleanly between two timelines is to put them in different tenses (one in past and one in present, or one in simple past and one in past perfect).  Another grammatically natural way, which imitates how people actually speak but might (either usefully or annoyingly) muddy the distinction between timelines, is to put them both in simple past. After all, in conversation, we use the same tense for yesterday and last year.

But not Smith. She's chosen to use a shifting present tense. "Said. Not says" explains that even though she's using the present tense, this particular moment has actually happened in George's past, in a time before the death of her mother.

So with the first paragraph, we're in a time before the mother's death, but "Said. Not says" is in the storytelling present, and "George's mother is dead" remains in that storytelling present. Then "What's the moral conundrum? George says" slips back into the time before the mother's death.

However, "Said. Not Says" isn't just a road map for the story to follow; it's an illustration of a particular mind at work, the mind of a POV character who is both self-aware and story-aware. Editing on the page is always a bit meta-fictional. It reminds us we're in a book.

At the same time, it mimics an oral story. In most printed texts, the corrections are worked out before we see them. A thing said out loud, however, can never be fully erased—the listener will surely remember it. Smith's redaction lingers on the page in a similar way.

The correction creates an illusion, then, that the story is alive and taking shape as it's being told. We have a narrator piecing it together and even modifying the telling. The narrative becomes not only the events that happen within the telling, but George's own attempt to make sense of them in story form.

Perhaps even more interesting is the fact that the correction doesn't stick. When George returns to the scene in the car, she returns to the present tense. She returns to "says": "What's the moral conundrum? George says."

So we see a struggle between the tenses as the narrator fights with the language. The words pull at her and she pulls back.

It's a smart way to show an internal conflict. In most stories, we're only told about internal conflict. Or else other stories show it indirectly, through its effects. But in How to be both, we can directly witness the fight that a mind has with itself.

I'm impressed that the internal conflict is manifest so clearly and so early. I'm also impressed with how it's revelatory of George's personality. We later learn about George's special relationship with words, grammar, and the precision of language.

So it's right that George takes special care with word choice. She's experiencing something strange but specific, and she seeks, painfully, for the best method of expressing it.

And the struggle with language is not only about George's quest to find the best way to describe her situation; it's also the best way for Smith to reveal that situation.

George's wrestling with words illuminates a central conflict of the novel. In response to her mother's death, she's dropping the distinction—willfully—between the now and the remembered past. These are memories, but they're not quite memories. They're not presented as what George remembers, but as what she experiences in the present. It's George's particular refusal to let go.

The statement that explains this, "George's mother is dead," further illuminates the tense struggle. To say that someone "is dead" is also, necessarily, to say that the person "died." A present-tense statement often tells us indirectly of the past, but it's particularly weighted in relation to death because of the way we purposefully use past tense in conversations of the deceased. The "Said. Not Says" is reminiscent of the way grieving people correct themselves after a death. So when George shakes off the past tense, it has particular resonance.

George's mother is not a chain-rattling ghost. But through an unconventional method of telling and a clear guide to understanding it, she's both present and alive in the story even after her death. It's one way that the past and the present are ever-wrangling throughout the novel.

In How to be both, Ali Smith plays spectacularly with time and tense and language. In particular, she evokes a compelling internal struggle through language that fights with itself. 

How have you seen a creative use of tense strengthen a story? Have suggestions for future book reviews? Join the bookish conversation on Twitter with hashtag #ReadingLikeAWriter.


Allison Wyss is teaching "Connecting with Your Characters: The Art of Intimacy in Fiction" this winter at the Loft. Her stories have appeared in [PANK] MagazineThe Southeast ReviewThe Golden KeyMetazenMadHat (Mad Hatters' Review)The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, and Juked. She has an MFA from the University of Maryland. She tweets, mostly about writing, as @AllisonWyss.