The University of Houston-Victoria is an unlikely hot spot for experimental fiction and the humanities. But this 3,200-student institution has, in just a few years, become host to a constellation of small but prestigious scholarly endeavors that needed new homes – including an independent press for “artistically adventurous, non-traditional fiction,” and the 8,000-circulation American Book Review.
“Sometimes, I’m surprised as well,” says Jeffrey R. Di Leo, dean of the School of Arts and Sciences at UH-V, which doesn't have Ph.D. programs and where most of the master's degrees are professionally-oriented. “I think this should all be at ‘Well-Known University Y.’ But it also becomes just another thing that the big university has -- whereas here it really is one of the cornerstones of our identity. So….”
At Houston-Victoria, it started with symploke, a comparative literature and theory journal that UH-V happily inherited -- Di Leo founded the journal as a graduate student and brought it with him to UH-V in fall 2002. Later on, says Di Leo, who holds a dual Ph.D. in philosophy and comparative literature, “The story came out that the American Book Review was in trouble and possibly could fold. I said if there’s something I can do to help out, let me know; I really appreciate that publication. It always reviewed the kind of quirky books that didn’t find a review voice elsewhere. One thing led to another and my name got floated to the publisher...."
With his president’s support, Di Leo brought American Book Review from Illinois State University to Houston-Victoria, inaugurating an American Book Review Reading Series there and raising funds (about $375,000 so far) for a permanent, $1 million endowment to support the publication. ABR's editorial operations came to Houston-Victoria in 2006, and layout and production in 2007. Di Leo serves as editor and publisher.
Overlapping literary and intellectual worlds are at work here, and Di Leo's name -- and UH-V's -- would be floated again. In 2008, the Society for Critical Exchange found an institutional home at Houston-Victoria, after being based at Case Western Reserve University for nearly 20 years. Di Leo is the society's new executive director. Also in 2008, the fiction press Fiction Collective 2 moved its day-to-day business operations to UH-V from Florida State University. (Other universities are also involved with FC2, with printing and distribution managed by the University of Alabama Press, for instance.)
And all of this has taken place during a period when many literary journals have been struggling financially — and found their host colleges and universities less than supportive about providing funds.
Houston-Victoria also has plans, pending approval from the Texas Higher Education Coordinating Board, to offer a M.S. in publishing degree starting this fall – “an academic program that, candidly, we would have no rational argument in favor of if it were not for the existence of the publishing enterprise that we now house here,” says Tim Hudson, the university’s president.
While humanities are under pressure elsewhere, he explains that this is "something that we want to run up the flagpole as a star program at UH-V. By program, I guess I mean the whole enterprise of bringing journals here, bringing the writers here, encouraging academic programs that feed off this synergy.
“Like in life we pay for what we value and this is something that we highly value and this is something we’re going to support to the extent that we can.”
Di Leo adds, however, that Houston-Victoria benefits from economies of scale now that there are several publishing ventures there. “It’s sustainable because of the volume, not in spite of it,” he says. He has focused on putting the scholarly activities and publications -- so often hidden "in a dusty room in the back" -- in front of the local community, involving the high schools, and hosting readings in potential donor homes.
“It’s kind of amazing the local support Jeffrey has managed to generate for these projects,” says R.M. Berry, chair of the English department at Florida State and formerly publisher of Fiction Collective 2 . Berry visited Houston-Victoria for a reading, through the American Book Review series, in 2007.
“One night I was hosted at a small gathering with about 30 people from the community. They were all patrons of the arts and supporters of the university; we just had a wonderful time in a gorgeous home. The next day I gave a reading for a packed house. It must have been over 100 people, maybe 120. Very few were students. It was just amazing to me. He just drew all these people from the community and they all had read my work and wanted to discuss it with me” – so much so that they didn’t even want him to read, just discuss, Berry recalls. He compares, too, a lengthy treatment of his writing in the Victoria newspaper favorably to “some of the readings it’s gotten in the New York Times, for example.”
So far, since fall 2006, 18 authors have come to Houston-Victoria through the American Book Review Reading Series. Marjorie Perloff, professor emerita at Stanford University, a former president of the Modern Language Association, and a well-known critic of contemporary poetry, comes next.
“I had never heard of Houston-Victoria till I heard that Jeff Di Leo had moved there and taken ABR with him and symploke too,” she wrote in an e-mail (Perloff has involvement with both publications).
“I still don’t quite know where Victoria is and am flying into Austin when I go.”