William Goldman, 48, and just this week losing his publicity tour virginity as he goes on a six-day, coast-to-coast talk-show binge, was in Washington yesterday talking about his new novel.

"T-I-N-S-E-L," he said, spelling it out.

Goldman, who has a Fu Manchu mustache that starts out dark gray by the Fu and ends up almost white by the Chu, is very successful, having written such novels as "Boys and Girls Together" and "Marathon Man" and such screenplays as "Marathon Man," "Magic," "All the President's Men," "Harper" and "Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid."

He can command $500,000 per screenplay, and that makes him "very commercial" -- a term that doesn't seem to disturb him at all. All he ever wanted to be was a writer, and now that it is making him rich he does not apologize. As for the quality of his work, as he sees it, he says, "I'm just trying to get through the day. I do the best I can.

Look, the truth is I don't like my writing. I'm not saying it's terrible -- obviously it isn't -- but I just wish I liked it better. What are we talking about here? Are we talking about novelists? When I was younger I thought F. Scott Fitzgerald was the greatest American writer, but when he died people thought of him as foolish. They said he wasted his time writing about college kids.

Then it was all Hemingway. Now, how many people under 40 talk about Hemingway? Things change, I know that men like Mr. Chekhov, Mr. Cervantes and Mr. Tolstoi wrote some pretty fair things. I wish I were, uh, . . . I wish I could do what they did. But I do the best I can.

"I wrote one thing I liked, a novel called, 'The Princess Bride,' It's in paperback now. And I've written a few movie scenes that I thought were good -- the scene in 'Butch' where they get to the cliff and Sundance says he can't swim. That was no accident. I knew he couldn't swim six months before I wrote it.

"But what's good? You're inside your own skin. You write something you like and you think -- Oh my God, is it all gone? Will I ever write again?

"How can I put this? I don't like the words 'good' and 'bad.' Nobody's hotter than Woody Allen now, right? You're assuming he's happy. I hope he is. But I'll bet he isn't. You do the best you can. That's all I'm saying."