In an age in which gossip has become an industry -- an age of ceaseless, relentless probing into the lives of the famous, the semi-famous and the would-be-famous -- is it any longer possible to write fiction that appears to be autobiographical but, in fact, may not be? More directly to the point, is it possible to deal in such fiction with sexual matters without raising the suspicion in readers' minds that the author is putting his private life on public parade?

The question arises after a reading of "A Lifetime Burning," a marvelous new novel by Ellen Douglas, a Mississippi writer whose popular following has yet to match her standing among reviewers and her fellow writers. The novel is narrated by a woman whose personal and professional circumstances are similar to the author's in important respects; in the course of it the narrator discloses that her husband is having a homosexual affair with a younger man and that she herself, two decades earlier, had a lesbian affair.

Inasmuch as there is considerably greater passion in both homosexual affairs than there is in the heterosexual marriage, the reader can be forgiven for wondering if personal as well as literary impulses are at work here -- if, that is, Douglas is using the novel in order to make a declaration about her own proclivities. As it happens, I think not. I am not personally acquainted with Douglas and know nothing about her save what has been published in dust-jacket biographies, but I am most emphatically convinced that homosexuality is introduced into the novel clearly and solely for thematic reasons -- as a metaphor for what Douglas depicts as the gulf of misunderstanding between men and women.

Beyond that, it can be argued that (a) such matters are nobody's business but the author's and (b) they are irrelevant to the novel as a work of fiction. But though both arguments are entirely valid, neither addresses the question that quite naturally arises in the reader's mind: At a time when it is fashionable to march out of closets and let it all hang on public display--a time, moreover, when autobiographical, self-declaratory fiction is all the rage -- is this yet another instance of stripping oneself for the world to see and savor? It is a question that fiction of recent years has accustomed readers to asking, as a few pertinent examples will illustrate:

* In "Falconer," the late John Cheever sent a paradigmatic "Cheever character" to prison and introduced him there to the pleasures of homosexual love.

* In "Sophie's Choice," William Styron very thinly disguised the story of his own literary apprenticeship, in the course of which the narrator is given his sexual initiation by a beautiful survivor of a Nazi concentration camp.

* In "Portnoy's Complaint," Philip Roth described in elaborate and hilarious detail the joys of masturbation as practiced by a narrator who gave every evidence of being a pseudonymous Roth.

* In "The World According to Garp," John Irving put a character in circumstances not unlike his own through a variety of hearty experiences, among them a fair measure of extramarital sexual activity.

* In "Passion Play," Jerzy Kosinski left scarcely a sheet unturned as he toured the world's fleshpots in the guise of a globe-trotting, jet-setting hedonist who, like all of Kosinski's protagonists, led a life markedly similar to the author's own.

No doubt each of these authors, if asked about the relationship between the action of his novel and the reality of his life, would reply that experience is the mere starting point from which the imagination begins, that to read these novels as autobiographies is a disservice to the books and their authors. All probably would argue that their novels should be judged as works of fiction and not examined, like tea leaves, for clues to the authors' secret lives. By the same token, all presumably would echo Faulkner's assertion that it is only the writer's work that matters, that the life must be paid no attention.

In those arguments they would be correct, but these days it's not so easy to separate private lives and works of fiction. Not merely does the machinery of gossip turn all but the most reclusive writers into public "personalities," but most writers seem eager to be as prominent as their work--if not indeed more so. When Irving poses for a magazine advertisement clad in wrestling garb that gives the appearance of an oversized codpiece, how can we distinguish between this public display of his own sexuality and the sexual activity in his novel? It is all well and good for Kosinski to say, as he did last week in Newsweek, that "the creative self . . . withers when turned into a public property," but how are readers to reconcile that statement with his posing bare-chested for, of all places, The New York Times Magazine?

When writers insist on being so flamboyantly public, why should readers be expected to swallow whole their protests of innocence against charges of autobiographical display in their fiction? When writers as celebrated as those mentioned above make a regular practice of being seen and heard (Roth being the exception among those listed), don't they make it far more difficult for other writers -- Ellen Douglas, or Scott Spencer, or Doris Grumbach, or Gail Godwin -- to present intensely intimate business in first-person narratives without facing charges of exhibitionism?

I think they do; the literary world these days is dominated by writers who have blurred the line between art and life beyond distinction, with effects that cannot be avoided by other writers whose purposes are, if I may be so bold, often more serious than theirs. But there is also another side of the issue for which they are not responsible. It has been addressed, with characteristic clarity, by Diane Johnson, who in an essay about the published letters of writers wonders "why should we care about the lives of writers at all" and offers this explanation:

"But we do, cajoled, perhaps, by the 'you' into the writer's confidence, or wishing to see how the writer practices what he preaches, or to enjoy the discrepancy between the mess he makes of things and the tidy determinism of his endings; or to understand the sly metamorphosis of the real unfaithful husband into the jilted lover of a book. Not just literary historians but every reader tests a book against the real--the real life of the author and his own real life; and the real lives of authors, like those of saints and politicians, and of everyone who sets up as a moralist or whose work is ultimately didactic, do have a strange exemplary power. Or maybe all lives do."

Johnson is right: Art and artist cannot be separated, and it is not mere voyeurism when the public expresses curiosity about the person behind the work. In some cases, such as that of "A Lifetime Burning," it seems to me that the author does not actually invite such curiosity but, because of the very nature of the book, cannot escape it; in others, the author's personality and history are injected so aggressively into the work that voyeurism is virtually solicited. But whatever the author's motives, we are long past those simpler days when writers could produce autobiographical fiction without fear of public psychoanalysis.