JOAN DIDION, exhausted by "absorbed and passion-

ate hours spent arranging words on paper," concedes

that she could more easily earn a living by practicing alchemy. Kurt Vonnegut describes reading over and proofreading his own work as an almost agonizing undertaking. Ann Beattie stares--blankly, hourly--out the window before she can begin to write.

The work of a novelist--the job Conrad Aiken once described as "the final business of self betrayal"--is an anguishingly personal endeavor. Yet somehow authors must progress from this ultimate act of introspection--writing --to what many consider the ultimate act of extroversion --publishing. "It's a far reach," says John Updike, "from a man in his PJs writing in New England to printing presses and the extensive apparatus that goes into the making of books."

But who can navigate writers through the angst, to the typewriter, toward the marketplace, and into the hands of their readers? Great authors are readily indentifiable; what characterizes the editors who are equipped to deal with them?

Those in search of the ideal editor are inevitably urged to apply the name Maxwell Perkins as the standard against which to measure all contenders. But the publishing industry has changed since the days when Perkins gained renown for discovering, encouraging, shaping the masterpieces--and even guiding the lives--of authors like Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Wolfe.

The trend toward conglomerate ownership of publishing houses and the consequent run for the big money in advances and movie deals is one factor that now prevents editors from becoming famous for developing the works of distinguished authors. "Today editors figure out a formula --'for a million dollars write this way,'" says Malcolm Cowley, who wrote about Perkins for The New Yorker in 1944 and is today an editor at Viking. "The author wants a million and so he does. Never before has the best-seller list been so far from serious writing."

This blockbuster syndrome is not the only reason why good editors are less known. "Fitzgerald, Hemingway, and Wolfe were almost immediately regarded as classic," says Aaron Asher, editor in chief of Harper & Row. "Today, a great many more writers are operating at a great level; there is no longer a consensus on who will survive. As a result, we have many good editors who are publishing many good books but no one can point to a 'discovery.'"

These "good editors" may not gain celebrity but they still retain the traditional responsibilities of editing, Asher insists. "They must acquire good books that can also be profitable; they give support, encouragement, and advice according to the particular author's need; and they serve as the author's ambassador to the publishing house."

Joan Didion was a grateful beneficiary of an editor who had refined the first part of the job--literary acquisition--into an acute instinct: Henry Robbins, whose death two years ago, at age 51, left the publishing world bereft. Robbins' authors included Tom Wolfe, Donald Barthelme, Walker Percy, and Joyce Carol Oates, who came to him after hearing Didion's praise for his skills and who later dedicated Bellefleur to him.

When Didion met Robbons, her first book, Run River had been well received by critics but little noticed by the public. Robbins, then at Farrar, Straus and Giroux, spotted the reviews, liked the book, and--"out of the blue," as Didion tells it--came to speak to her in California and offered her a contract. After she'd published two books with him, Didion showed Robbins the first hundred pages of a new novel--A Book of Common Prayer. "Henry said immediately that the book would be very important for me. There was no reason in my own mind for it to have been a success; but Henry knew what would sell and what wouldn't."

John Gregorniey Dunne, Didion's husband, was also edited by Robbins, who took on Dunne's True Confessions after Random House had turned the project down. "Henry was on a real roll." Dunne remembers. "Everything he touched turned to gold. One day we'd had some drinks to celebrate because the Book-of-the-Month Club had taken True Confessions. We came back to his office in really good spirits. Henry rather dramatically pointed to a package on his desk and said it contained his next book-club selection. I told him that no book would be successful if it had a title like The World According to Garp. But Henry simply knew that the book would take off." Garp has since had press runs of more than 120,000 copies in hardcover and 3 million in paperback.

The subject of literary acquisition, however, has a flip side. Didion, who has been lauded by James Dickey as "the finest woman prose stylist writing in English today," rebounded from 12 rejections before her first novel was published. Kurt Vonnegut sustained fewer, but perhaps more stunning, blows. He was published by Scribners, Houghton Mifflin, Harper & Row, and Holt, Rinehart & Winston before settling with Delacorte. Why? "They all let me go as being without sufficient promise," Vonnegut says.

"I got a terrible bawling out from the Houghton Mifflin editor," Vonnegut remembers. "He was so angry that he followed me outside and down the steps, demanding to know where I got off thinking I could publish something like the manuscript I'd given him. It was Cat's Cradle." Holt also rejected one of his novels, even though they had contracted him for it: Slaughterhouse Five.

Because his books weren't selling well and he had six kids to support, Vonnegut had in the meantime exiled himself to a teaching post at the University of Iowa. "The president of the university gave a cocktail party once," Vonnegut recalls, "and all the books written by staff were spread on the coffee table. No books of mine were there; They were no longer available in the bookstores." It wasn't until Seymour Lawrence at Delacorte spotted a humorous review that Vonnegut had written of The Random House Dictionary and offered him a "handsome sum--more money than at that time I'd seen in my life," that the author was able to devote himself full time to writing.

The industry's obsession with huge money-making book and film packages has aggravated the problem of finding a loyal or enthusiastic publisher. "I've benefited from the conglomerate mergers and their quest for best sellers," says Vonnegut, "because I'm just what a big company wants: zero risk. It's friends of mine, writers whose first or second books have sold only moderately, who will not continue to be published, even though they write exquisitely."

The second part of the editor's job--developing the proper relationship with authors--may also be aided by instinct, largely due to the intensely intimate nature of writing. "A lot of writers resent the mythic editor who is a combination psychoanalyst, father figure, amanuensis," says Asher. "Some need that symbolic figure. One way to describe the best editor is by pointing to one who senses what's required with each individual."

John Updike counts himself among those who avoid the father-confessor editors. "Some authors are more personally dependent than I am. I think it's their way to relieve the dreadful loneliness of writing. But at the highest level of art, I believe, authors don't need those relationships. A committee even of two doesn't create masterpieces."

Updike, whose books have all been published by Knopf, for a while enjoyed Alfred Knopf himself as his editor. "Yet I didn't need to deal with the head of the publishing house for such mundane tasks as sending books to my aunt in Cleveland. One day I saw Judith Jones in the halls and said she looked like a good editor to me.

"The most important thing about Judith is the way she communicates excitement about book making in general," say Updike. "She alsrnieo operates as a conduit between manuscripts and the still somewhat mysterious world of book production."

This is not to say, of course, that Updike the writer has never had to ride through a moment or two of turmoil. He once likened reading an unfavorable review to suffering the taunts of a bully who called him "Ostrich" when he was a boy.

"I still, now and then sometimes--in reading, say, a book review by one of the apple-cheeked savants of the quarterlies . . . get the same old sensations," Updike once commented. "My ears close up, my eyes go warm, my chest feels thin as an eggshell, my voice churns silently in my stomach."

In these past moments, Updike says, Jones has intervened "with a light touch. I'm fairly old and tough now, but when I was more hurtable she had the appropriate comment."

Didion, on the other hand, thrived on a far more personal relationship. "All Henry's writers were his friends," she says, "and all his friends were his writers. Part of his genius was his ability to make you his friend.

"He would call to chat even if we weren't doing books. I signed the contract for my second novel in 1966, but it wasn't published until 1970. During those years Henry never asked me about it. He had the idea of putting together my pieces for Slouching Toward Bethlehem; and he listened to me. But he never asked me about the novel. If he had I would have stopped taking his calls."

So often had Didion relied on Robbins as a confidant about her "hopes and doubts" that when he died suddenly, she wrote that "there was only one person I wanted to talk to about it, and that person was Henry.

"The relationship between an editor and a writer . . . is almost parental," she continued. "The editor, if the editor was Henry Robbins, was the person who gave the writer . . . the idea of herself, the image of self that enabled the writer to sit down alone and do it."

When it comes to the actual editing of a manuscript, however--changing those words wrenched from within --friendliness seems to count little. What matters then is trust.

"I want someone whose intellect I respect," says Ann Beattie, author of the critically acclaimed Falling in Place and recently described as the only literary celebrity of her young generation. Beattie chose her editor, Robert Cowley at Random House, on the advice of her friend Mary Lee Settle, who is herself the winner of the National Book Award for Blood Tie. Cowley, according to Beattie, is an "archangel" who "knows how to read my work; his way of thinking is parallel to mine." Beattie also shows her book manuscripts to her husband, an "excellent editor" at Newsweek (who excised an entire chapter of Falling) and has every intention, she says, of continuing the practice after their impending divorce.

Didion and Dunne are also the first to read and critique each other's works--predictably enough, given that they even converse stereophonically, each finishing the other's sentence. Vonnegut, however, won't show his books to his wife, photographer Jill Krementz. "It makes for too much trouble in the household."

Vonnegut also likes response from his editor and even insists he would prefer more. "Nobody's perfect," he says. "I would welcome it if I were treated as a beginner. I want to hear what doesn't work. Hell, I wasn't smart in school; why should I be smart now?" He even concedes --with a catch in his voice--that in retrospect he wishes he'd made certain changes; he says he can't discuss them.

Nonetheless, Vonnegut is firm in proclaiming a law that all authors interviewed here want editors to abide: "The editor suggests changes; he doesn't make them. The editing consists of queries written on the side," he says. "There are, of course, some officious people who shouldn't be in the field, who are schoolmarmish and have arbitrary standards and do extraordinarily elaborate editing. I would hate that. What the author must do then is write 'stet stet stet stet stet stet' endlessly down tehe margins."

Updike is also vehement on the subject of alterations. When he submitted his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, to Harper & Row, the editor who accepted the work attempted to make what Updike calls a "Perkins-like suggestion" intended to make the ending clear. "I thought the ending was clear enough," Updike says flatly. He withdrew the manuscript and sent it to Knopf, where it was published without change.

Since then, Updike has readily accepted "small changes" such as the deletion of sentence repetitions and a few modifications in Rabbit, Run for reasons of sexual frankness. But after Nabokov published Lolita, Updike says those alterations in the first Rabbit book "rather rapidly became silly and were all restored."

"It's up to the author to fend off those changes he should," Updike continues. "Were Faulkner edited, a lot of his magic would have been removed along with his craziness. In the end, you have to stick to the way you feel about it in the teeth of all sensible suggestions."

The final job of an editor is one many literary commentators bemoan but is perhaps most essential: He must take over as publisher, within his own publishing company, to see that each book is well marketed.

These are the chores that have most changed the face of editing since Perkins' time. "If Fitzgerald had the idea for The Great Gatsby today," says Beattie, "Perkins might have seen to it that the book was created, but the industry would have gotten in the way. Would Perkins have gotten a paperback deal for it? Would announcements in Publishers Weekly declare the book dead before its pub date? If Perkins couldn't get a good budget, if he couldn't influence the sales crew, if he only got a press run of 5,000--a book needs 20,000 to be successful in the bookstore chains--he could have worked his heart and soul out but Gatsby would have gone unnoticed."

In her capacity as a reader for the Ernest Hemingway Award recently, Beattie read some 170 novels and collections of stories by new authors. "The books are being published," she says, "but I was surprised at the number of typographical errors in them. The bindings often came apart in my hands. Some editors hadn't even bothered to fill the book flap with copy. Those books will get lost in the shuffle."

However significant the changes in the publishing world, most authors and editors agree that only the periphery of the job of good editing has been altered, not the core. Malcom Cowley once noticed that Max Perkins, from time to time, slipped into the use of obstetrical terms, talking about an author who had "a great book in him." Cowley pondered how Perkins' own job, like a doctor's, was to see that the manuscript was completed and delivered. Today good editors are still charged with the same basic obligation. They may now have to write the birth announcements; yet they nonetheless must continue to reassure the parent-to-be, remain available in case anything goes wrong, and receive the final product when ready. They check for all the basic parts and prescribe for disorders. But under no circumstances do they undertake major cosmetic surgery to see if they can improve on facial features.