''When I was a kid, I remember reading short stories in newspapers, and then it went out of style I guess about the time of World War II,'' says two-time Pulitzer prize-winner Russell Baker.
''Where do you publish if you're a writer these days - especially short fiction?'' he asks, in a telephone interview.
For Mr. Baker, a popular New York Times columnist, getting published is a moot point. But his question is actually asked for the thousands of talented writers for whom getting published is an entirely different ball game - one with countless strikeouts in a declining fiction market.
Yet a syndicated fiction project begun last month may be the needed boost for aspiring writers on the road to stardom.
The National Endowment for the Arts in conjunction with the PEN (formerly Poets, Editors, and Novelists) American Center (a literary service organization) is offering short stories for publication to 10 newspapers with a combined circulation of 5.2 million. The participating newspapers are required to publish at least two stories out of eight cream-of-the-crop fiction pieces provided by the PEN/NEA project each month.
''It seems to me to be a good idea,'' says Baker of the project. ''A newspaper outlet is a chance for writers to get their stories printed and exposed to the public.''
Project coordinator Donna Phillips says the program was created not only to give writers an outlet, but to encourage the publication of fiction in newspapers.
''We recognize that it is a relief (for readers) to be able to read something of literary quality and of this type of excellence which provides a lift,'' she explains, ''fulfilling a need other than hard news that can hit you over and over again.''
And the idea of nestling fiction among pages of news has been well received by editors, says Mary MacArthur, assistant director of the NEA literary program. ''One thing we learned when we contacted the newspapers was that there is a movement to bring back fiction to newspapers.''
So during the next year, readers of the Miami Herald, the San Francisco Chronicle, and Chicago Tribune - the three largest newspapers participating in the project - will be able to settle down Sunday mornings to a tall glass of orange juice and a well-crafted slice of fiction.
Indeed, ''The Railroad Feast'' by Stephen Heller and ''The Looters'' by Harvey Jacobs, two short stories that appeared in the Sunday magazine section of The San Francisco Chronicle last month, were of ''astonishingly high quality,'' says features and Sunday editor Rosalie Wright.
The stories seem to strike a chord with readers also.
''I'm beginning to receive letters from all over the country from people who have read my story,'' says Mr. Heller, whose ''The Railroad Feast,'' set in depression times, tells of a boy's experience acquiring coal for the family stove. ''That rarely happens when I publish for a literary magazine.''
Because of the potential volume of manuscripts, submissions to the project were limited to a select pool of writers - winners of NEA writing fellowships and PEN members. Award-winning authors Russell Baker, Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Stone, and Ann Beattie judged the stories and selected a total of 96 for publication.
''We had only two criteria that we gave to the judges,'' Ms. MacArthur says. ''We told them to look for general literary quality, and for suitability to a general family audience.''
Many a writer has wedged his foot in the door to the literary world by publishing fiction in newspapers. Nobel prize-winner Isaac Bashevis Singer published in newspapers before plunging into book form, and continues to do so even today.
Fiction has appeared in American newspapers as far back as 1728, when Samuel Keimer's ''Two Vertuous Women'' appeared in the Universal Instructor in All Arts and Sciences and the Pennsylvania Gazette. Some 20th-century writers printed in newspapers include John Steinbeck and F. Scott Fitzgerald.
But with the advent of large-circulation magazines like The Saturday Evening Post and Collier's, fiction in newspapers dwindled into near oblivion. Eventually, many of these magazines disappeared from the racks because of financial difficulty, leaving a sparse fiction market for writers.