Whether you are dealing with fiction, poetry, or nonfiction literature, use the present tense (also called the literary present tense or historical Present) to discuss the actions and thoughts presented in the text. Do this because literature exists as a present phenomenon regardless of whether or not its author is alive.
Here are some examples (the pertinent verbs are in bold type):
- In his “Qualities of the Prince,” Machiavelli writes that it is better for a prince to be armed, because “among the other bad effects it causes, being disarmed makes you despised” .
- In her essay, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens,” Alice Walker discusses the history of African American women and describes how “they dreamed dreams no one knew—not even themselves, in any coherent fashion—and saw visions no one could understand” as a result of the silence inflicted upon them by lack of education and prejudice.