PUBLISHERS TEND TO BE as wary of the short novel as they are of poetry. The bleak fact is neither, with rare exceptions, sells. So, when Harvard University Press announced last September a "Program in the Short Novel," a Boston publisher told me, "It's stupid. It'll die in three years." But Harvard does not expect to make money publishing novels of 25 to 60 thousand words. The program is a project of the Belknap Press, a heavily - and separately - endowed press-within-a-press. At Belknap the bottom line is prestige, not dollars.

William Goldman, who conceived the program, worked for Harcourt, Brace for 20 years before coming to Harvard in 1976. "We're doing something the literary marketplace can't afford to do," he says, "and it will be good for writers."

In a little over a month Harvard received 189 short-novel manuscripts, as they come in, are read first by in-house people, next by outsiders on a fee basis and, if they get that far, by the program's board of judges: Eudora Welty, Irving Howe, John Gardner.

An outright grant of $1,000 will go to the author whose novel is accepted for publication under the otherwise standard Harvard contract. Goodman predicts Harvard will "revive a distinguished literary form." Readers of The Kreutzer Sonata, Pale Horse, pale Rider, or Seize the Day ought to send up a nearly perfect small cheer.