THE ART OF BIOGRAPHY is no less mysterious than the art of fiction. Like the novelist, the biographer is obsessed by the need to discover the true story of a life. While the writer of fiction plumbs the realms of memory and imagination, the biographer's discoveries seem necessarily more tangible -- objets trouv,es lying in wait for the writer to happen upon them in boxes of yellowing letters or the recollections of an octogenarian. Examining such givens, the biographer must determine what is truly "true" and what is self-deception or prejudice. But there is more to the writing of lives than the patient compilation of "fact." The biographer must finally dream his subject, must somehow reach that crucial moment where a window in the mind opens and the writer finally sees. THE CRAFT OF LITERARY BIOGRAPHY Edited by Jeffrey Meyers Schocken. 253 pp. $23.50

IN The Craft of Literary Biography, 13 practitioners of "life writing" -- among them Nigel Hamilton, Ronald Hayman, Frederick Karl, Elizabeth Longford, Paul Mariani and Patrick McCarthy -- take us behind the scenes and and examine biographical writing as a process. To some extent they succeed in showing us the potential variety and richness of the form and the part that individual creativity plays in rendering, as Mariani puts it, "the man caught shimmering (perhaps) in all that dust." Primarily, however, this is a book about the adventures and misadventures of research.

William M. Murphy had never thought of writing a biography of John Butler Yeats until he encountered a 70-year-old woman -- in Schenectady, N.Y., of all places -- who had taken care of W.B. Yeats' father in his last illness and gave Murphy access to her extraordinary collection of letters and manuscripts. Mark Holloway sat at tea in an English garden watching heplessly aghast as an entire archive of the papers of Norman Douglas' family were torn to shreds by his aristocratic hostess. Elizabeth Longford slept in the "narrow Spanish double bed" in which Wilfred Scawen Blunt had conceived his various illegitimate children, even though Blunt's granddaughter said it was haunted: "But as an objective biographer I dared not harbor such perceptions and in fact slept in it very well." In writing about Samuel Beckett, Deirdre Bair negotiated a delicate relationship with a tantalizingly elusive living subject, who told her on their first meeting, "You are free to do as you choose," and said he would "neither help nor hinder" her work.

Entertaining and informative as these essays are, most of them fall short of being truly illuminating. It is as if by the very nature of his calling the literary biographer has a certain inbred reticence. He will admit to craft but not to art. It is significant, for example, that in this collection only Paul Mariani, a poet as well as the biographer of William Carlos Williams, raises a question about the language of biography -- how far the writer can go in rendering the world of his subject through that subject's characteristic, everyday diction. And only Frederick Karl in his essay on Joseph Conrad looks at the crucial distinctions between the psychological and psychoanalytical approaches to literary biography. The biographer's task is "to bring together the man and his work," Karl writes. "Our goal is to understand the transformations that occur when life becomes work, when work pre- empts life."

Unfortunately, a careless reader of this collection might well conclude that the only proper study of the literary biographer is "the man and his work" since not one of Jeffrey Meyers' 13 contributors wrote on a female subject. Whether an accidental or intentional principle of selection, this omission of an entire gender is startling in a period when so much important biographical work is being done on women. WRITING OF WOMEN: Essays in a Renaissance By Phyllis Rose Wesleyan University Press. 160 pp. $14.95

PHYLLIS ROSE points out in her introduction to Writing of Women that biography of women writers plays an especially important role in what academics call "canon formation" -- the process of deciding that someone is major. It is surprising to realize that until recent years even Virginia Woolf was ranked as minor. She did not ascend to her present status until critics and biographers had demolished "the image of her as the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury" and made her "a patron saint of feminism."

Refreshingly undogmatic, Rose is a feminist who will not allow her enthusiasm for the works of women to blur her critical eye. In reviewing books by and about such major and minor figures as Willa Cather, Frida Kahlo, Djuna Barnes, Jean Rhys, Margaret Drabble, Diane Arbus and Simone de Beauvoir, she never succumbs to the all too familiar identification of "women and emotion, women and the inner life, women and nurturing," etc. While retaining her interest in the way "writing style and gender might be connected," Rose admits to a diminishing enthusiasm for "writers who seemed to consider themselves 'feminine' in too self-congratulatory a way."

Rose's prime concern in literary biography, like Frederick Karl's, is the rendering of the development of the artist. In reviewing Judith Thurman's biography of Isak Dinesen, she writes: "Thurman seems to believe that it is what one has done, what one has lost, what one has accepted, that makes one a writer. Isn't there more -- more of a strictly literary nature -- to it than that?" In the same essay, she quarrels with the popular "melodramatic notion" that women must "forego life" (i.e., sexual life) in order to become great storytellers. "Major" is not a judgment Rose comes to easily. "The fact that an artist has been unappreciated does not mean her work s major," she reminds us. On the one hand Rose perceives the epic nature of Willa Cather's vision; on the other, she is sharply critical of Andrew Field for placing Djuna Barnes in the same category as Joyce and Eliot: "Joyce and Eliot are ascribed achievement; Barnes is given an excuse." All in all, this slender but very valuable book sets a new standard for feminist criticism. LETTERS TO ALICE On First Reading Jane Austen By Fay Weldon Taplinger.127 pp. $14.95

ROSE REMINDS us how much good biography depends on a "c atalytic conjunction between subject and biographer." That catalytic conjunction is nowhere more apparent than in Fay Weldon's Letters to Alice, a maverick biography in the form of an epistolary novel. Aunt Fay, a contemporary British woman writer touring Australia and the Far East, is writing to her imaginary niece Alice, a young girl with a punk hair-do and an impatience with classic literature, about a 19th-century writer named Jane Austen. Why should someone like Alice bother to read a novel like Emma, so irrelevant to the crises of her own world? Because, says Aunt Fay, "it is in the literature . . . the fiction of the past, that you find real history and not in textbooks." Because "Novelists provide an escape from reality; they take you to the City of Invention. When you return you know more about yourself."

With bracing wit and economy, Fay Weldon makes Jane Austen live for Alice and for us, constructing an inner life for Austen from the relatively few known facts of her story. Weldon's version of Austen is empathetically invented from what she knows about the condition of English gentlewomen in the early 19th century and what she knows intuitively as a novelist herself about the first novelist to "suggest that the personal, the emotional, is in fact the moral." Refusing to minimize Austen's achievement by seeing her creativity as a reaction to repression, Weldon paints her as a writer who covers her work when someone comes into the room -- not out of shame but because it would be intolerable to have someone read a few lines out of context; a writer who found "energy for invention" in the "fearful battle" she waged with the "real world" of the Georgian era and lost.

Aunt Fay's letters are wickedly tart and spunky and full of great good sense about the literary life. "Writers were never meant to be professionals," she warns Alice when she begins a novel of her own. "Writing is an essentially amateur operation. It is what you do when you are not living."

Q'S LEGACY By Helene Hanff Little, Brown. 177 pp. $14.95

WHAT DO Jane Austen and Helene Hanff have in common? Both are women who have lived more richly in their books than in their externally quiet lives. Helene Hanff is not a novelist, however, but a memoirist and bibliophile -- a minor writer as she would probably be the first to admi. Q's Legacy is a curious book, in fact, for these loud times, since it is about modesty and commitment.

Hanff is certainly one of Weldon's amateurs, even though she would probably identify herself as a professional free-lance writer. She is a woman who for the past 25 years has lived in the same one-room Manhattan apartment with a typewriter and a great many books. Not all of her own manuscripts by any means have been accepted for publication, and she seems to have responded to rejection slips with an almost Zen-like equanimity. She traces her early passion for the written word to reading Arthur Quiller- Couch's The Art of Writing shortly after she was forced to drop out of college in the 1930s (thus, her title). Q led her to John Milton, Cardinal Newman, Samuel Pepys, Jane Austen, John Donne (the Majors of English literature) and to a delightful 30- year correspondence with Frank Doel, an antiquarian bookseller in London from whom she ordered beautifully bound old editions even through the grim years of the Blitz. After Frank Doel's death in 1969, she decided to "relive the lovely episode Marks & Co. had been in my life by making a short story of the correspondence." When the short story grew in to 84, Charing Cross Road, its success was a considerable surprise to her.

Nearly all writers have fantasies about how the publication of a book will transform their lives. What they often temporarily forget is that the best thing about writing a book is the writing itself. When 84, Charing Cross Road was published in England, Helene Hanff, by then in her fifties, finally left her booklined room, got on a plane, and saw the London she had loved in her imagination for so many years. It must have looked the way she had pictured it but also have been slightly disappointing. On a later trip she was taken to Q's old quarters in Cambridge and was rather shocked when his favorite green bowler was placed in her lap: "There was a kind of violation in being so familiar with his ghost."

But a larger shock had already come to Miss Hanff, one that Jane Austen could never have experienced. Watching a rehearsal of a BBC television dramatization of her book, "I was looking at my own apartment and at books that were unmistakably mine, but I wasn't there. . . . Suddenly it was a visible fact to me that Frank Doel wasn't the only one who had died. I must have died, too -- or how could someone else be sitting on the floor a few feet from my coffee table, pawing through my most cherished books as if they were hers?"

Having only drowned once, Helene Hanff returned gratefully and modestly to the City of Invention, which can be visited by writers of nonfiction as well as by novelists. Her "glory days" became imperfect memories, transmuted by that curious act of putting words on a page into that realm where the light is subtly brighter and more luminous than the light of reality.