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Copyright © 1997
James D Thomas


"Stranger Than Non-Fiction"
March 1997 | Updated Monthly

College Fiction Journal

First, some backstory: For those who have never seen it, College Music Journal is a monthly magazine, CD sampler included, that does a pretty good job of covering the sorts of music heard on college radio stations. Granted, the CD is filled with songs that the labels want to push, but sometimes the labels push good songs, and the magazine itself is well-informed and pulls no punches in its reviews (although the feature puff pieces do grow tiresome). Plus, the range of music covered is impressive -- there is the obligatory concentration on alternative and punk derivatives, but also reasonable coverage of rap, techno, metal (yes, metal is still there, plotting the day that its dark rituals will once again rule the world!), country, folk and world music. It's cheap (subscriptions are ~$4.00 an issue), and it exposes it's readers to much music they would otherwise never have seen.

College Fiction Journal is an attempt to do the same for obscure fiction; to borrow techniques from music marketing to get young writers exposure, a cachet of hipness, and maybe some sales. I can just see the struggling writers, plugging away alone night after night, muttering to themselves: "What a great idea! Why should the musicians get all the anonymous blowjobs?"

CFJ tries, really tries, to make writers seem hip -- often by explicit or implied comparisons with musicians. Sometimes it works. Sometimes it doesn't. Ok, we already knew that Pagan Kennedy was cool. Katie Katlovitch, who spent time as a heroin-addled fluffer before learning to write crypto-nostalgic paens to the slow adolescent disintegration of security, is labelled the 'Courtney Love of the new fiction', apparently with some justification. And there is a simple elegance to Maggie Ko's sudden abandoment of grad school at Harvard for the writing life as a dishwasher-poet in Alberquerque. But after ten suburb-raised riot nrrrd sci-fi writing whiteboys, they start to blend into each other. And, for example, Shepard Frost is a not-very-attractive guy who lives in a basment in Pittsburgh and churns out creepily erotic horror stories laden with skeleto-insectile imagery; no matter how you dress up those facts, no matter how hard you try to make him look like the Guided by Voices of horror fiction, he's still not going to have groupies. Well, Marilyn Manson has groupies, but it just doesn't seem to work out that way for writers.

Like CMJ, CFJ comes in two parts: a glossy magazine with reviews, features, and interviews, and an arty little chapbook with poems, excerpts and stories. You can feel them stretching the music industry metaphor to fit: novels, magazines, and compilations are like 'albums', and stories, excerpts, and poems are 'singles', used to whet the appetite and push product. I wonder how much corporate influence is here; unlike music, where the post-Nirvana Lemming rush into alternative left most independents financially in bed (whether monogamously or not) with the majors, the fiction underground of is still mostly a labor of love. A good chunk of the excerpts here seemed to come from the small press; a good sign. The sample chapbook was all over the map in quality: I gave up on most of the stories after three sentences, and I used some of the poems as comic relief between takes down at the set. But a couple of stories were good enough to pass along to script readers; and I even bought a book because of an excerpt.

One thing I really liked about CFJ was it's apparent disregard for genre boundaries. In one page, reviews of placid mainstream literary fiction, Sylvia Plath school if-I-don't-write-I'll-kill-myself poetry , 'This story does not contain the letters 'q' and 'b'' class of experimental fiction, and bad Dickian sci-fi all coexist happily. There were news columns specializing in specific genres, which seemed to do a pretty good job of covering what I (and my boyfriend) were familiar with. Given how much some of SurReview's contributors complain about being ghettoized in genre catagories, I take this a good sign, and one that mirrors the need of music to pump vital fluid of novelty from the fringes to feed the ravenous, bloated mass of the mainstream.

All in all, I think CFJ is a great idea, although I have doubts about its continued survival. I fear for its ability to appeal to the broad CMJ crowd: college kids who painstakingly established their hipness by cluing their friends in to Shonen Knife and King Missile before they were cool. But until it folds, they've got my subscription.