Insulting Washington novels can be one of the more fascinating pastimes, better even than insulting Washington , if there are any broadsides left to be leveled at this city of marble and occasional monumental weirdness.

It's even better, apparently, if one happens to be a Washington novelist, sitting on a panel with three other members of the species.And it's best if the audience consists of members of the American Society of Newspaper Editors, who hire the reviewers who occasionally write awful reviews of Washington novels. Which are about sex. And power. And ego. All of which were much discussed and/or in evidence yesterday at ASNE's afternoon session at the Washington Hilton.

It started out innocently enough. All that panel moderator Howard Simons, managing editor of The Washington Post, asked was whether the Washington novel is dead, or indeed had ever been alive.

Barbara Howar, best-selling author of "Making Ends Meet," one-time Washington hostess and center of whatever scandal was brewing that week. opted for dead. "Stupefying," was the way she described the Washington novel these days.

William Safire, former Nixon speechwriter, current New York Times columnist and ever ready one-liner artist disagreed "Barbara, you're just bored because you're reading too much of your own stuff," said the author of "Full Disclosure." "The Washigton novel is here to stay because it's about power, and that's the stuff of drama, and of the novel itself."

Les Whitten, who, like the others, used to be somebody else (Jack Anderson's colleague) before he became himself (author of a number of novels including "Conflict of Interest"), decided on "moribund" to describe the W.N. Instead of Washington, the new political novel will be set in places like Harrisburg or the Montgomery County School Board, Whitten threatened.

Everyone had different ideas about why the Washington novel was in such trouble. Marilyn Sharp, wife of Rep. Phil Sharp (D-Ind.) and author of "Sunflower," a thriller set in Washington, had the least popular theory, contending as she did that it wasn't the fault of the subject matter, but of the writers themselves.

"God knows I try to write deep," Whitten signed. "But I'm just a shallow person."

Actually, Howar contended, the problem is really contained in the nature of the reality buzzing around these days. No publisher in his right mind is going to cough up big bucks for a story about "a buck-teethed little southern boy carrying his suitcase off and on airplanes" in his quest for political glory, she said.

With that, the authors turned to sex, (Yes, it got the attention of the audience, too.)

"The problem is sex and power are no longer sexy," said Howar, but Safire chided her for "derogating sex" as a subject for the Washington novel. "Well who wants to read about sex with Nixon, Billy?" Howar asked. n"We all know he did it twice."

No, said Safire, sex in a novel followed the same lines as an adage concerning the subject in general. "When sex is good," Safire quoted somebody or other, "it's very very good, and when it's bad it's still good."

Look at the way the newpapers write about aggression, Safire suggested. "They're always writing about naked aggression, not disheveled aggression or even spiffy aggrssion. We use the work 'naked' because we like to shcok people."

"Is that why you're always going around exposing people, Billy?" Howar asked.

"No," said Safire, "I'm actually into cover-ups."

When none of this managed to shake members of the audience out of what appeared to be sudden massive attack of laryngitis which prevented them from asking questions, the authors turned to the subject of each other. An example:

"I used to work for Jack Anderson," said Les Whitten, on the way out of a less interesting subject.

"Well, I wasn't going to bring that up," Howar said.

"I'm not saying who you used to work for, Barb," said Whitten.

"Well, I never took money for that," said Howar, coming back faster than an approaching deadline.

After taking a few potshots at book reviewers (snobs and funcational morans, being among the tamer epithets) the authors talked about what they were currently reading "Proust,'" said Whitten. "It'll never sell," said Howar) and currently writing. Howar is writing about surviving and keeping one's sanity in this age; Safire is writing about Lincoln, national security, individual rights and conspiracies during the Civil War; Sharp has another thriller working, and Whitten is writing about dropping out. Whitten said he had even thought about setting it in St. Paul.

"I'm from St. Paul," said an editor who had been among the formerly mute. "And I read your last novel. Please don't set it in St. Paul."