SAN DIEGO — Good fiction may be an endangered species. More and more, the experts say, television has corrupted the taste and judgment of publishers.
"Unlimited Powers," a book written by a Del Mar fire walker named Anthony Robbins, is more likely to make the best-seller list than "Dessa Rose," the gorgeously written, heartfelt novel about slavery by UC San Diego Prof. Sherley Anne Williams.
Television and "cheap" literature are increasingly a part of American life, they say, while deeper, more meaningful work takes on an esoteric quality, a marginal look.
Struggling for survival among these forces is Fiction International, a literary publication based at San Diego State University. Fiction International is a deliberate alternative--some would say a provocative one--that has been rewarded in recent weeks with high praise.
If only high praise paid the bills. Unfortunately, its success has been mostly aesthetic, and poetic, based more on the daring and innovation of the magazine and not at all on solvency.
One hundred writers and editors from around the country were recently polled about the top literary magazines in the United States. Fiction International finished in the top 16 of 2,000 considered for the honor. (The survey was conducted by Literary Magazine Review.) Other top finishers included the Paris Review, Antaeus and Prairie Schooner.
But Fiction International is in trouble. Even co-editor Harold Jaffe, a professor in the SDSU Department of English and comparative literature, said survival is impossible to predict. He's hopeful, but the outlook isn't rosy.
"The people in the university respect what we're doing," he said, "but funds are scarce. It's difficult to keep coming up with financial support. We've gotten moral support, and the administration has been very good, but it's been a money-losing proposition from the word go. The (SDSU) Press has taken on the magazine and is proud of it, but that still doesn't solve the problem."
The problem is that such magazines, while notable aesthetically, are scraping and struggling to survive, especially in an era of retrenchment. Not to mention the intellectual preferences, or shallowness, of the times, which Jaffe and co-editor Larry McCaffery cite as gargantuan hurdles.
As Jaffe said in a 1983 interview, "Largely because of technology, people don't read as much as they once did. Even the best students are ill-read. Another problem is that a lot of serious fiction--really splendid work--just isn't getting published."
In 1983, Fiction International moved from St. Lawrence University in Canton, N.Y., where it started in 1973. Jaffe and McCaffery took it over from founder and publisher Joe David Bellamy, a St. Lawrence professor. He, too, labored under a burden of being fiscally unfit.
"The dean (of the School of Arts and Letters) has assured us he would not let the magazine fold," said Jaffe, who teaches creative writing, among other courses. (McCaffery also teaches at SDSU.)
Despite Dean Marilyn Boxer's promise, Fiction International has pondered other funding sources, such as Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana and San Diego's Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.
Jaffe and McCaffery hope it doesn't come to that. But clearly, a wish Jaffe expressed in 1983 has not come true: "We expect to become solvent, even generate a profit, based both on grants and sales" and a minimum of advertising.
Roger Cunniff, head of SDSU Press, stopped short of calling the situation bleak, but he did say that the magazine loses about $10,000 a year.
At the moment, SDSU Press spends about $16,000 a year on Fiction International, managing to recoup about $6,000 through grants and subscriptions. During its first two years of operation, Cunniff said, the magazine received $2,000 from the California Council for the Arts, then last year $4,000 more from the same group. He hopes to package that $6,000 with a $7,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The magazine has applied to NEA but has yet to hear whether its request has been approved.
With $13,000 in grant money and possibly $2,000 in subscriptions, "maybe," Cunniff said, "we'll finally break even."
'A Hard Sell'
Cunniff was asked if the patient is in danger of dying.
"That's kind of an open question," he said with a laugh. "People just don't ordinarily subscribe to this kind of magazine. It's kind of a hard sell. As it is, we go to around 200 libraries and about 150 to 200 individuals."
Fiction International has published four issues at SDSU of mostly avant-garde and political writing. It has featured the work of such writers as Joyce Carol Oates, Robert Coover and Margaret Randall, an expatriate poet, recently deported, who authored two pieces in the current theme issue on Central America.