This blog was great, but isn’t any more

In another life, I’m running a short story contest, and keep being reminded of a linguistic wrinkle that’s most naturally associated with naive arts reviews. The simplest form would go something like this:

‘This was a great story. I really enjoyed it.’

On the surface, there seems to be nothing untoward or inconsistent in those sentences, but underneath is what seems to me to be a fundamental mistake – or perhaps a fundamental difference in how people think of certain forms of art.

Look at the tenses in each of the sentences. They’re the same, but they refer to very different things, and that’s where the wrinkle is. The subject of the first sentence is the story; the sentence describes the writer’s feelings about the story’s greatness. The subject of the second sentence is the writer himself; the sentence describes his feelings on reading the story.

A simple past tense fits the second sentence, since it’s the reading of the story that’s being described, and that’s in the past. But a simple past tense doesn’t fit the first sentence. It’s not just a matter of an opinion being stated – the ‘greatness’ of the story is obviously a matter of opinion. It wouldn’t be problematical to say:

‘Caligula was a great Roman emperor.’

It wouldn’t be problematical, because Caligula isn’t a Roman emperor any more. The past tense refers not to the location in time of the writer’s opinion, but the location in time of the matter that’s the subject of the opinion.

But art typically persists. If I say:

‘This was a great story.’

and the story still exists, then what do I mean? That it used to be great (in my opinion), but isn’t any more? What happened to it? If the story continues to exist, and I continue to believe that it’s great, then this is surely a linguistic mistake.

Things might be complicated in certain situations. Graham Sutherland’s infamous (and, in my opinion, great) portrait of Winston Churchill doesn’t exist anymore. It was burned by Churchill’s wife. Yet the photographic image still exists. Should I say that it ‘is’ (in my opinion) a great portrait, or that it ‘was’ (in my opinion) a great portrait?

That’s by the by, since the stories that I’m using as my subject here unquestionably still exist. So why would a reader say that a story ‘was’ great? I have two speculations.

The first is that the reader somehow fails to see the story in the abstract, and therefore cannot separate the story from his reading of it. If he liked it when he read it, some time in the past, then it ‘was’ a great story. It was great because he thought so at the time of reading, and that’s past.

The second, which I suspect is more likely, is that the reader seems sure that he won’t read the story again. Perhaps reading isn’t something that he associates with multiple occasions. It would seem very odd – obviously very odd – in contrast, to say that a piece of recorded music (as opposed to a performance of a piece of music) ‘was’ great. We’re used to hearing music – especially music that we’re fond of – on multiple occasions, and expect to hear it again. It seems less obviously odd to say that a piece of recorded text ‘was’ great, but the music and text are functionally equivalent. Films too. To say that a film ‘was’ great would be to make the same mistake – unless the film has somehow lost its greatness over time, or unless the statement is an elided form of:

‘I used to believe that it was great, but have since changed my mind.’

Either of these speculations represents a diminishment of a piece of art. It denies it a continued existence, and a continued ability to be ‘great’. It connects the art too closely to its consumption by a reader or audience.

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