Only a handful of writers can lay claim to a distinctive and definitive voice. Most are echoes; some, confused halftones that suggest but never articulate. V. S. Pritchett, the British essayist, critic, novelist, and short story writer, has given us, with his ''More Collected Short Stories,'' further evidence, if it were needed, of his preeminence as one such distinctive voice.
Pritchett writes of that vast middle class that progressive governments and universal education have created in the 20th century, and more particularly of the less distinguished members of that class - salesmen, minor bureaucrats, and pink-collar working women. Bourgeois in tastes, with modest aspirations for something a little better, these men and women are imbued with shrewd common sense and an instinct for self-preservation. In this collection Pritchett, with his familiar deftness, exposes their emotions, which are revealed by eccentricity and symbolic gesture rather than the crime de passion, but for all that are no less devastating in their impact on their lives.
There is little splendor and much shabbiness in their lives. In ''The Satisfactory,'' the story that best illustrates Pritchett's gifts, a sometime antique dealer and his middle-aged assistant, the unmarried Miss Tell, deal with their respective passions in, for them, a satisfactory manner. World War II has brought the antique business to a halt; Miss Tell has lost her parents and her cat, Tiger, in a bombing raid. But for Mr. Plymbell, the dealer, the worst suffering is the shortage of food. Eating is Mr. Plymbell's passion. To him the fall of France in 1940 ''was not the surrender of an heroic ally but the defeat of sauces. Bearnaise, hollandaise, madere - one saw them overrun.'' With the loss of her family, Miss Tell becomes for Mr. Plymbell ''the rarest of human beings, a creature who had three ration books, a woman who was technically three people. . . .'' The idea for a satisfactory solution comes from Miss Tell. At Polli's, a shabby restaurant with ''white pillars that gave it the appearance of a shop-soiled wedding cake,'' Mr. Plymbell now ate two lunches daily. ''While this went on, Miss Tell looked at him. She was in a strong position now. Hunger is the basis of life and, for her, a great change had taken place. The satisfactory had occurred.''
Such stories as ''The Worshipper,'' in which an unsuccessful businessman struggles on because he feels he owes it to the portrait of great Uncle Gibbs that hangs in his small dusty office; and ''Our Wife,'' where a husband, by electing a friend ''Molly's additional husband,'' gains some needed freedom, are fine examples of Pritchett's sympathy for people's need for comforting illusions , for solutions that preserve rather than destroy. The cuckolded husband of a particularly tiresome woman who wanted to live in a ''snobby district'' so that she could ''be one of the toffs and look down your nose at everyone'' can do little more than enter the house next door where his rival lives and sit down in front of the fire - then, ''in order to annoy them next door, poked the fire.'' Low key, perhaps, but for a man over whom ''the shadow of shame came down like a dark shop blind,'' it is an act of magnificent defiance.
Only in two stories, ''The Vice-Consul'' and ''The Evils of Spain,'' does Pritchett seem to echo styles and attitudes other than this own. In comparison with the rest, these seem mannered and less fresh.
No form is so tempting to novice writers as the short story. Lured by its brevity, which promises rapid accomplishment and immediate acclaim, they forget that its very conciseness demands extraordinary gifts possessed by very few. Pritchett is one of those few: able to create in a couple of pages a universe with all its attendant drama, humor, and credible characters.