If the literary luncheon crowd had expected another celebration of writers and writing, they weren't prepared for novelist John Gardner yesterday.

"American fiction is really bad right now . . . pretty terrible" were his first words. And that was only the beginning as he spoke at The Washington Post's Book and Author Luncheon at the Sheraton-Park.

The trouble is that today's novelists are spending most of their words "whining about how miserable things are," Gardner said, and studying evil while accepting they can't do anything about it.

Gardner, whose rich-textured novels like "The Sunlight Dialogues" and the recent "October Light" have won critical praise and public following, defined the purpose of fiction - and art - as "a technique of discovery."

Instead, novels today are offering readers a performance, a sermon, or a "linguistic sculpture," he said.

Gardner wasn't reluctant to name his colleagues. Saul Bellow, the Nobel Prize winner, he said, uses fiction as an essay for delivering sermons and then "Makes up stick figures and walks them though." What Bellow has to say is good, Gardner conceded, but this still isn't what the novel is all about.

And then there are the novelists-as-performers, as Gardner classifies writers. These are the ones who are satisfied with teasing the reader to wonder what possibly could pop up next from the imagination. For them, it doesn't matter if the characters are real or the story says something.

Finally, the linguistic sculptors may have fun with the language and be amusing. But that isn't enough for Gardner's definition of a novelist as an artist who makes the reader feel an experience as "deeply true."

Novelist Gardner spoke yesterday with a historian and a poet at the book and author luncheon.

James Dickey, fresh from his appearance as the unofficial President's poet at the Carter Inaugural gala, read from his "kind of go-for-broke" poem, "Zodiac." It is Dickey's first book-length poem in a career that has included the best-selling novel, "Deliverance."

Joseph P. Lash, the historian whose latest book is "Roosevelt and Churchill, 1939-41," spoke about his research find of a document that explains, at least for him, a possible rationale for the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. The plan was that the japanese would then turn on the weaker England and expect America to tire of the war.

The lesson for today, Lash said, is that totalitarian powers take into account the view that democracies do not have staying power and will become divided and tired during war.