V.S. Pritchett, anyone remember him? One of the great British short story writers of the twentieth century, but he’s not much read now. Which is a shame, because there is still plenty to love in his short stories.
It’s not just for his fiction that I value him, though. He thought and wrote about the processes of writing. One of my favourite quotes is:
I should like to think that a writer just celebrates being alive.
That seems as good a reason to be putting words together as any other that I’ve come across, and if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll have gathered that I am a collector of wise-writing-words.
Pritchett died in 1997, and for the general reader apparently drifted from general consciousness soon after that. Perhaps that seems natural. There are an awful lot of new writers appearing all of the time, and we can’t read everyone.
But pick up an anthology of short stories produced in Britain, in the twentieth century, and the chances are it will contain a Pritchett story. But he had other hats too, writing essays about literature, and teaching in American Universities. He also edited the 1981 Oxford Book of Short Stories.
His stories are Chekovian. He specialised in character studies: characters caught in a moment of stress, and explored, usually for comic potential.
The great thing about the short story is the detail, not the plot. The plot is useful, but only for supplying the sort of detail that is not descriptive but which pushes the action forward.
How does that work? Well it’s not a formula. Each situation demands it’s own delivery. Here’s the opening of one his 1977 stories, A Family Man:
Late in the afternoon, when she had given him up and had even changed out of her pink dress into her smock and jeans and was working once more at her bench, the doorbell rang. William had come, after all. It was in the nature of their love affair that his visits were fitful: he had a wife and children. To show that she understood the situation, even found the curious satisfaction of reverie in his absences that lately had lasted several weeks, Berenice dawdled yawning to the door.
Compare it with the opening for On the Edge of the Cliff, the title story of his 1979 collection:
The sea fog began to lift towards noon. It had been blowing in, thin and loose for two days, smudging the tops of the trees up the ravine where the house stood. “Like the breath of old men,” Rowena wrote in an attempt at a poem, but changed the line, out of kindness, to “the breath of ghosts,” because Harry might take it personally. The truth was that his breath was not foggy at all, but smelt of the dozens of cigarettes he smoked all day.
Don’t both of these exemplify what is meant by ‘show don’t tell’? Here are not just scenes set, but also tone, and although you cannot know it on first read, everything you need is there. To me, Pritchett epitomises the ‘never a word wasted’ premise for short story writers. He sculpted more meanings from most of his words than I can grasp with a casual read. Most of his stories deserve a second read, and will repay that attention by revealing missed nuances.
If you haven’t tried him before, he’s one from my recommended reading list, and if you like slapstick, you might go first to The Saint, which I think is one of the funniest stories written.
And then, for the writers amongst you, there’s the V.S. Pritchett Memorial Prize, which was set up by the The Royal Society of Literature (RSL), and is one of those prestigious awards to aim for.