WILLIAM FAULKNER The Man and the Artist By Stephen B. Oates Harper & Row. 363 pp. $22.50

STEPHEN B. OATES, who has made a career of writing dramatic biographies of dramatic figures, here turns his hand to a man whose life was lived almost entirely in the mind; he has made an unwise choice, for the mating of biographer and subject turns out to be unsuitable. William Faulkner was the great American novelist of the century, but his life's story is essentially irrelevant to his work; Oates attempts to juice up that story with hyperventilated prose and lavish attention to Faulkner's sex life, but in the process he loses sight of the only Faulkner who really matters -- Faulkner the writer.

It is rather difficult to see why Oates chose to write a life of Faulkner, hard on the heels of biographies of, among others, Martin Luther King Jr., Abraham Lincoln, Nat Turner and John Brown. In a preface he rather lamely asserts that he has attempted to write "a 'pure' biography" for the general reader, and rather immodestly claims that "this book is written in the old and honorable tradition of biography as a narrative art," but this skirts the central difficulty, which is that he largely evades the responsibility of critical evaluation of Faulkner's work -- the approximate equivalent of writing a biography of Lincoln without assessing his military and political strategy during the Civil War.

If one sets aside this substantial shortcoming, then William Faulkner: The Man and the Artist achieves a certain legitimacy as a study of the man, if not the artist. It is essentially a synthesis of all previous Faulkner biography and scholarship, of which there has been a great deal; Oates himself seems, from the evidence of his notes, to have done relatively little original research. He is less obsessive about quotidian detail than was Joseph Blotner, which certainly is a relief, and he incorporates all the information about Faulkner's love life that slowly came to light after the first version of Blotner's biography was published in 1974, which is titillating if nothing else. If all you want is the facts, Oates has them.

But what, precisely, do the facts mean, and what is our real interest in them? Faulkner lived all his life in the Mississippi town of Oxford, save for occasional forays to Hollywood in search of movie money. His schooling was irregular, as was his military service; he made no bones about the former, but lied about the latter. He was unlucky in love as a young man, and when he finally did marry his childhood sweetheart, Estelle Oldham, the union was a disaster, though it was blessed with a daughter upon whom Faulkner doted, in his fashion. Over the years Faulkner had a number of affairs, but he could not leave Estelle -- he was, again in his fashion, a notably honorable man -- and thus was fated to unhappiness. He drank prodigiously, except when he was doing serious writing, and eventually he drank himself to death.

All of which can be at least mildly interesting when fleshed out with details, but none of which bears on the only aspect of Faulkner's life that really matters outside his circle of family and friends: his books. Faulkner himself knew this, as he wrote -- Oates reprints the famous passage with no evident awareness of the irony of so doing -- to Malcolm Cowley in 1948: "It is my ambition to be, as a private individual, abolished and voided from history, leaving it markless, no refuse save the printed books; I wish I had had enough sense to see ahead thirty years ago and, like some of the Elizabethans, not signed them. It is my aim, and every effort bent, that the sum and history of my life, which in the same sentence is my obit and epitaph, shall be them both: he made the books and he died."

Certainly there may have been an element of dissembling in that; later in his life, when he became a gray eminence, Faulkner took a degree of wry pleasure in the attention that came to the man rather than the writer. But there can be no question that those words reflected a deep understanding about what did and did not matter -- an understanding that has eluded Oates just as it eluded Blotner. Though Faulkner lived a life apart from the books, a life that had its full share of passion and anguish, he knew quite well that it had nothing to do with the books and that attempts to chronicle it would only divert attention from them.

If anything, Oates quite inadvertently reminds us of just how irrelevant the life is to the books. Reading his narrative, one is struck over and again by how resolutely un- autobiographical Faulkner's fiction is. With the exception of The Reivers, which is probably more memoir than fiction, not one of his novels has as its center a character who is the author fictionalized. While his contemporaries Hemingway and Wolfe were luxuriating in self-absorption, Faulkner was quietly writing books that drew not on his own experience but on the collective memory of his community, as filtered through his own prodigiously retentive and selective mind. He celebrated not himself but the human spirit.

OATES seems at one level to understand this, but since it does not suit the plan of his biography, in the end he gives it little more than lip service. He provides lengthy summaries of the plots of each of Faulkner's books, but no real critical evaluation of them, either individually or collectively. One gets from his biography no particular sense of how intimately the novels and stories are interconnected, no judgment as to their relative weight. Instead he dashes along, hyping his story with newsmagazine prose, chattering away about Meta Carpenter and Joan Williams and Jean Stein, oblivious all the while to the biographer's responsibility to weigh his subject's life's work.

For that the reader must turn to David Minter's William Faulkner: His Life and Work, published in 1980. This relatively brief study combines a straightforward account of the life with a lucid reading of the work. It is unostentatiously written and cogently argued. Nothing in Oates' book improves upon it.