RECENTLY A TOURIST arriving here from the States claimed he was robbed of a rare item of hand luggage. "Which item?" he was asked. "Janet Frame's latest novel," he said.

Janet Frame, I hasten to add, is not a popular author -- she is an introspective writer; she writes of states of mind. The novel in question, Living in the Maniototo, was published in New York by Braziller a year ago. In New York it was on the Time critic's list for weeks; in New Zealand it won the most prestigious fiction prize for 1980 -- yet, a few months ago, it was still unknown and unread in the author's native land. Even in December six universities, a hundred libraries and countless bookstores were impatiently vying with one another to import the first copies.

If this reveals anything, it is not that New Zealand lacks publishers of its own: per capita New Zealand (pop. 3 million) has perhaps more active publishers than any land save Israel. But rather that for the first time serious writers are being taken seriously at home. One has to remember that less than a generation ago when the country's leading poet, Rex Fairburn, died, it was such a minor event that for years nobody could find his grave.

The Frame incident also shows that after being tried to English publishers and audiences for more than a century, New Zealand writers -- nothing if not Anglo-Saxon in manners and puritan in outlook -- are starting to break the umbilical cord.

Recently American publishers and university presses have turned not only to major New Zealand novelists like Janet Frame and Sylvia Ashton-Warner (Spinster, Teacher, I Passed This Way), but to short-story writers and poets overlooked in the Old World. An example is the volatile religious poet, James K. Baxter: unknown in Europe, but a cult figure here since his death in 1972, Baxter's reputation at eastern American universities is blossoming.

Nobody would claim that American publishers are "moving in" here or that American book reviews are more evident in Kiwi living rooms than say The New Statesman or the London Observer. Still, Harper & Row's great success with the Australian The Thorn Birds, has helped focus American eyes on neighboring New Zealand with its "hundred poets and hundred million sheep"; and there is no doubt that the values New Zealand authors reflect -- the nostalgic pioneer values that have fled the American scene -- find a sympathetic ear on the bigger continent.

Even minor novelists do well. Yvonne Kalman, an unknown Auckland housewife married to a taxi driver, is reported to have received advances of $110,000 for four light historical works, two of them due out in New York in 1981.

Altogether the sights are changing.

To put this in perspective: until the 1960s only a handful of New Zealanders had shrugged off an English Georgian tradition and gained a literary reputation abroad. They included, besides Katherine Mansfield (who died near Paris), Robin Hyde (who died in England), Jane Mander (who wrote her best book in New York), Dan Davin (who lives in Oxford) and John Mulgan (who died in Cairo), all emigres. Only the short-story writer, Frank Sargeson, at 77 the doyen of New Zealand letters, stayed home, having made history by retiring on a pension to write full-time. At home local publishers ignored fiction, novelists starved. Everything was "received," mostly from the big English houses who exported surplus books to their antipodean branches and recouped the profits.

New Zealand boasted one literary journal, Landfall, no agents, no literary prizes to speak of and a state literary fund so poorly endowed and quiescent that many writers did not know it was there. As late as 1973, 17 years after the Australian novelist Patrick White had exported the Australian psyche with Voss and The Tree of Man, a prestige paperback firm like Penguin claimed no contemporary New Zealander on its list. The first New Zealand Penguin, my own novel Mackenzie, appeared in 1974.

In that year came a break-through. P.E.N. published a survey showing that established New Zealand writers (novelists, poets, playwrights) earned less than $1.50 a week from their works. Almost immediately the government introduced a Public Lending Right law (it pays a royalty on library borrowings). Since then and almost hand-in-hand have come: a proliferation of book awards and research grants, more literary journals, writers-in-residence schemes, travel fellowships abroad and a dramatic increase in government patronage. At the same time Reed, the main indigenous publisher, found itself competing with a range of expanded English branches (Collins, Hodder, Oxford, Heinemann, Longman) which had overnight become independent and a force on the publishing scene.

Now when overseas writers generally face dwindling sales, our authors are doing comparatively well. A successful local playwright, Roger Hall, for instance is also enjoying a vogue in London's West End with his comedy, Middle Age Spread. And with Plumb (1978), a characteristic novel about an aging Presbyterian minister, Maurice Gee has won not only a string of local awards but the coveted British James Tait Black prize.

Gee's novel, evocative, nostalgic, the story of a man battling with an over-ripe conscience, is quintessential. It has no violence, little anger and less sex -- what looms is the Puritan presence, without which New Zealand writers probably couldn't function. By contrast major Australian novels seem bloodthirsty.

Having said this, I think of two recent exceptions, best-selling New Zealand novels that bite -- Karl Stead's Smith's Dream, about an American takeover of New Zealand; and Albert Wendt's Sons for the Return Home, about race relations. Both have become films. Significantly Wendt, almost the only angry writer publishing here, is Samoan, "with a dash of German."

New Zealand still has only one literary agent, publishes a mere 700 titles a year and by American standards the rewards for full-time writing seem tiny. But the New Zealand author has a built-in bonus, namely a culturally-starved and voracious audience. New Zealanders still read more books per capita than any other people. Universal literacy, leisure and a high standard of living are finally working to the writer's advantage. A budding film industry, a television system with up to 60 percent local content and a literary journal, the NZ Listener, which is now in mass-circulation, have also helped.

Where does this leave the poets? I remember being asked by the BBC in 1967 to present a program on New Zealand poets and having to scratch to find three with a message big enough to reveal the idiosyncrasies of this bi-racial society. Today it would be easier. Poets tour pubs, play to capacity halls in schools and colleges -- they have become the folk figures and touring theaters of the land. Some, the sailor poet Denis Glover and the Maori protest poet Hone Tuwhare among them, are best sellers.

Violence may be out; New Zealand may still await its Mailer, its Saroyan, its Updike; its writers may still send their characters to bed with socks on, but happily the days when Katherine Mansfield was, in Fairburn's words, "the one peacock in our literary garden," are over.