One of the happier literary events of recent vintage is the appearance of handsome paperback editions of three novels by Ellen Glasgow, a writer much admired in this country during the '20s and '30s but not much read today outside the English departments. Published by Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, these three are Glasgow's best works: "Barren Ground," "The Sheltered Life" and "Vein of Iron." They are important books, undeservedly neglected; their republication reminds us not merely that Glasgow's reputation is in need of rejuvenation but that she was a writer with utter devotion to, and understanding of, her art.

She was born in Richmond in 1874 and died there in 1945, having lived in that rigidly stratified city all her life. She never married and seems to have been disappointed in love, but her real passion in any event was for fiction. She published 22 novels between 1897 and 1943 -- for one of them, "In This Our Life," she received a belated Pulitzer Prize in 1942 -- and a remarkable posthumous autobiography, "The Woman Within," in 1954. Well before Faulkner and others came along to finish off the job, she exposed the hypocrisies and deceits of the southern myth; her principal subject was the conflict between the empty romanticism of the genteel South and the inexorable industrialization that was displacing it. She wrote novels of manners, a genre not usually associated with southern fiction, but she did not limit herself to the upper crust and instead ranged widely throughout southern society.

Years ago I gained an acquaintance with her work through "Barren Ground" and "In This Our Life," but this new edition was my first exposure to "The Sheltered Life," which was originally published in 1932. In its own right it is a remarkable novel, both as a depiction of social conflict and decay and as the story of a beautiful woman's self-deception and betrayal. But in some ways its preface, apparently written by Glasgow for a later edition of the book, is even more remarkable. This brief document, Glasgow's declaration of literary standards, is as clear a statement about the sources and character of serious fiction as one could hope to read, one with implications far broader than the immediate confines of Glasgow's own work.

"Nothing," Glasgow writes, "except the weather report or a general maxim of conduct, is so unsafe to rely upon as a theory of fiction." There are no formulas, especially for what she called "the true novel," as distinguished from "the run-of-the-mill variety." She writes: "The true novel . . . is, like pure poetry, an act of birth, not a device or an invention. It awaits its own time and has its own way to be born, and it cannot, by scientific methods, be pushed into the world from behind. After it is born, a separate individual, an organic structure, it obeys its own vital impulses . . . But until the breath of life enters a novel, it is as spiritless as inanimate matter."

This is something the writing schools do not teach: The "true" novel cannot be willed into being; it is a creation of the imagination, and the workings of that mysterious creature are beyond any writer's control. Glasgow recalls that when she was a very young girl, "a character named Little Willie wandered into the country of my mind, just as every other major character in my novels has strolled across my mental horizon when I was not expecting him, when I was not even thinking of the novel in which he would finally take his place." Eventually, as she grew older, Little Willie "vanished forever," but from him she learned crucial lessons:

"He showed me that a novelist must write, not by taking thought alone, but with every cell of his being, that nothing can occur to him that may not sooner or later find its way into his craft . . . I learned, too, and never forgot, that ideas would not come to me if I went out to hunt for them. They would not fly when I pursued; but if I stopped and sank down into a kind of watchful reverie, they would flock back again like friendly pigeons . . . I have never wanted for subjects; but on several occasions when, because of illness or from external compulsion, I have tried to invent, rather than subconsciously create, a theme or a character, invariably the effort has resulted in failure. These are the anemic offspring of my brain, not children of my complete being; and a brood whom I would wish, were it possible, to disinherit."

It is difficult to imagine a more vivid or telling description of the difference between fiction that matters and fiction that, whatever its superficial merits, does not. Quite simply it is the difference between creation and invention, between a story the writer is compelled to tell and a story he fabricates in order to have a framework upon which to construct a novel. Fiction of this latter sort can, to be sure, be entertaining and even revealing; but it is lacking in what Glasgow calls "a sudden wholeness of perception, one of those complex apprehensions which come so seldom yet possess a miraculous power of conviction" -- which are commonly called artistic vision.

This vision is absent to a remarkable degree these days in American fiction. We have scores of technically gifted writers who have been trained in all the right techniques, who can produce highly professional books yet who have nothing to say, who are moved by no inner voice; they know all the notes, but they haven't any music in them. What Glasgow calls "the born novelist," the writer who has no choice except to write, is a rarer phenomenon today than we may realize. William Styron is one, and so is Anne Tyler. Ellen Gilchrist is, and Louise Erdrich may well turn out to be. But too many others, including some much praised in all the right places, are novelists not born but made. It is to them Glasgow speaks when she says:

"Learn the technique of writing, and having learned it thoroughly, try to forget it. Study the principles of construction, the value of continuity, the arrangement of masses, the consistent point of view, the revealing episode, the careful handling of detail, and the fatal pitfalls of dialogue. Then having mastered, if possible, every rule of thumb, dismiss it into the labyrinth of memory. Leave it there to make its own signals and flash its own warnings. The sensitive feeling, 'this is not right' or 'something ought to be different' will prove that these signals are working."

The novel, like any work of art, "requires more substantial ingredients than a little ignorance of life and a great yearning to tell everything one has never known." It requires maturity, vision and heart; Ellen Glasgow, who was abundantly blessed in all these qualities, knew whereof she wrote.