We hear a lot about ''writer's block,'' an ailment that occurs frequently in movies, plays, and novels about writers. Doubtless it afflicts real writers as well, but it is particularly virulent among those who for some reason like to pass themselves off as writers without actually lowering themselves to write anything.
Nadine Gordimer provided a bracingly sensible perspective on this problem several years ago in an interview in the Paris Review. ''Sometimes,'' she said, ''when I'm writing (a novel) I get a block, and so I stop and write a short story, and that seems to get me going.'' So much for writer's block. In Gordimer's native South Africa, writer's block is more likely to occur after a writer has completed a controversial work that arouses the suspicions of the government censor.
Gordimer's fame has spread from South Africa, where some of her work has been banned, to the rest of the world, especially English-speaking countries. Like many American fiction writers, Gordimer began her career with a volume of short stories. Since then, she has divided her time between the short story (nine volumes so far) and the novel (eight).
As her remark about writer's block reveals, something about the form of the short story is congenial to the way Gordimer thinks and writes. Her novels and stories alike show an abiding interest in political and social ideas and in how ideas - and ideals - shape the lives of individuals. But if a novel like ''Burger's Daughter'' examines a woman's commitment to a political idea, Gordimer's short stories are each based upon the working out of a single controlling idea.
This is particularly noticeable in her latest collection of stories. The characters and actions are deliberately generalized. An African resistance hero in the story ''At the Rendezvous of Victory'' is seen not as any particular hero but as a representative type: ''... he had wintered in the unimaginable cold of countries that offer refuge and military training, gone to rich desert cities to ask for money from descendants of people who had sold Africans as slaves, and to the island where sugar-cane workers, as his mother and father had been, were now powerful enough to supply arms.''
The title, novella-length story paints with swift, sure brush strokes a cross section of South African society from policemen to revolutionaries, each individual life overshadowed by an indefinite yet ineradicable sense of ''Something Out There.''
Only in Gordimer's brilliant and very funny tour de force, ''Letter From his Father,'' which gives Kafka's parent Hermann the chance to reply to his son's devastating letter, do we hear the cantankerous and distinctive voice of an individual speaking out against the circumstances that have conspired against him.
Gordimer has characterized her own political views as ''radical'' rather than ''liberal.'' With each successive book, she seems more convinced that there is no hope for her society but a very drastic upheaval, and - radical though she is - she is not very optimistic about the consequences of such a revolution. Her fiction has grown starker over the years.
Yet in this latest volume, more strongly than ever before, Gordimer not only expresses a pessimism about political and social conditions in South Africa, but she also gives voice to a far more universal sadness about life in general. From the hopelessness of the dying woman in ''Terminal'' to the vain hopes and ambitions of a pair of lovers who wrongly believed they would be remembered after their deaths (''Rags and Bones''), the theme of each and every story in this volume is diminishment.
Gordimer is as courageous in recording this more personal feeling of sadness and loss as she has been in speaking out about political conditions in South Africa.