Local book finds unlikely Asian market: Pritchard’s update of classic strikes a chord
MIDDLEBURY — The deposits into Stanford Pritchard’s National Bank of Middlebury account arrive at random hours, but usually in the middle of the night.
Of course, that makes perfect sense. The funds come from a literary agency in Seoul, South Korea, and the day’s quietest hours in small-town Vermont are the busiest in a hub of Asian commerce.
Pritchard, a writer born in Washington, D.C., and educated at Haverford College and the University of Chicago, moved to Middlebury in 1978 with a former flame.
Among other things, Pritchard has worked at The New York Review of Books and typed out five novels; a novella, “Terminal Vibrato,” that he says pokes “gentle” fun at academia; nine plays that have been staged in New York City, his second home; four collections of poetry; and a collection of short stories. His short story “Player in the Symphony” earned a nomination for a Pushcart Prize for small-press fiction.
Pritchard, who admits only to being “older than I want to be,” acknowledges frustration that his works have not found a wider audience.
“I had three of the worst literary agents in New York. I don’t know how I got so lucky, but they couldn’t sell anything,” he said, adding, “I learned to write well just about the time people stopped reading. But I stop at nothing to make writing entertaining. To write clearly, simply, and well is not easy. I got better at it, but it took me quite a while.”
Still, those funds from Korea show up because one of his literary efforts proved to be a success — his modern take on William Strunk Jr.’s classic work on good writing, “The Elements of Style: Updated and Annotated For Present-Day Use.”
But that work has not jumped off the shelves — or Amazon.com’s digital equivalent — in quite the way Pritchard expected, although 57 reviewers have given his updated version an average of 4.5 stars out of a possible 5. (E.B. White’s version remains the best known update of Strunk, of course, and has sold more than 10 million copies.)
After a decade or so of modest sales, Pritchard received an email in the fall of 2014. In retrospect it is unsurprising that it came in the middle of the night, given its source — a Seoul literary agency.
Would Pritchard be interested, the email asked, in signing over Korean distribution rights to his updated “The Elements of Style?” It wasn’t a difficult decision.
“This required me to sign a contract one time. From there, the money went directly to the National Bank of Middlebury,” Pritchard said. “It was very cordial. They were very efficient.”
The first payments started out at around $200. They have grown.
“I just look at my bank statement, and ‘Deposit from Amazon, $400. Deposit from Amazon, $600,’” Pritchard said.
On a monthly basis, they have begun to add up, although Pritchard remains unsure exactly how many copies are being sold. He theorizes schools are buying them for classroom use, in part because of a relatively modest price compared to the famous Strunk and White version.
“It made $1,600 last month, and $1,800 the month before,” Pritchard said. “And 200 bucks from the English version, and it’s paying my rent, my food, my gasoline, my tobacco, most of my alcohol.”
ELEMENTS OF A PROJECT
Pritchard undertook the task of updating “The Elements of Style” during an unhappy intermission in his relationship with the woman who he said remains the love of his life, a New York City resident.
A friend recommended the project, an effort that anybody who cares to take on may do because the copyright on Strunk’s original 1918 work — first created for Strunk’s Cornell University students to improve their writing — has expired.
That pamphlet — which has undergone several other updates in addition to E.B. White’s — contained just 43 pages, and Pritchard thought he could complete the task in a matter of weeks. He was mistaken.
“It took 14 months, not six weeks. And what I found was Strunk assumed you knew a lot of things in 1918, like what an apposition is, what a participle is, what a gerund is. Do people know any more what a gerund is?” Pritchard said. “Do you know what an end-stop is? An end-stop is a period. And Strunk said the strongest word should go at the end of the sentence next to the end-stop. So I had to go look it up.”
(For the record, a gerund is a noun form of a verb and it ends in “ing.” In the sentence, “Hitting a baseball is difficult,” the word “hitting” is a gerund. A participle is an adjective formed from a verb, such as “burned” in burned toast. Curious readers may look up “apposition.”)
Pritchard’s love of good language and frustration with the opposite drove him to complete the project.
“I happen to be schoolmarmish, in grammar what’s called a prescriptive,” Pritchard said. “For me, anything doesn’t go. It ought to be right. As I say in the introduction to the English version, language is a game. The whole pleasure comes in playing it elegantly.”
In support of his position that written language needs rules and is best when those rules are followed, he enlists a literary heavyweight.
“Robert Frost said, ‘I would as soon write free verse as play tennis with the net down,’” Pritchard said. “Given that language will inevitably change, I emphasize that one of the main reasons for speaking and writing correctly is for the pleasure it provides in the way we observe the rules or, ironically, bend them.”
Pritchard loves sports, and he finds particularly annoying the way announcers mangle language.
“(They say) ‘He’s not as good of a player as what he was last year.’ Where did ‘of’ come from? Where did ‘what’ come from?” Pritchard said. “Chris Collinsworth and Troy Aikman routinely spew sentences like that. Drives me up a wall.”
This comment would seem to confirm another Pritchard remark: “The two most important rules in Strunk are 1) ‘Omit Needless Words,’ and 2) ‘Use the Active Voice.’”
Asked what sets his version apart, Pritchard said he can be tougher than Strunk and White on the reader seeking to improve his or her writing.
“I have whips that other people don’t have. I ride you,” he said. “My philosophy is get it right. If you’re going to be a carpenter you wouldn’t tolerate shoddy work. Everything else we expect it to be done right.”
Pritchard’s English edition also adds, as well as his extensive bold-faced comments and updated notes, a “Rogue’s Gallery” of examples of bad usage, titled, “A Tour of Haphazard Writing in Newspapers and Magazines, and Some Observations About Language,” and a chapter on punctuation, “Little Dots and Squiggly Things.”
He said those sections were removed from the Korean edition, although whimsical and colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman (known for her work in The New Yorker) grace its pages.
However, Pritchard notes his expanded list of commonly misspelled words has been retained, while there is a “mysterious new out-of-nowhere” epilogue in the Korean version.
“A friend translated it for me, and it is essentially a pep talk about the pleasure of learning new languages, and how my book is a distinct aid in that process,” Pritchard said. “I was greatly relieved: I was afraid it might say something like, ‘Don’t believe any of the preceding crap.’”
Of course, anyone writing a book that advises writers how to write faces a particular challenge.
“The hardest thing about creating Strunk and Pritchard was that I had to proofread it over and over,” Pritchard said. “I had written a book (or co-written a book) in which I enjoined, encouraged, admonished, prodded, beseeched, ordered and pleaded with the reader to take pains to be accurate and precise in her writing: How was it going to look if I had a great big, fat whopper of a typo or misspelling leaping off the page of my book? At the risk of jinxing the future, I will note that I have not yet found any typos or misspellings in the published work.”
Andy Kirkaldy may be reached at [email protected].
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