Stern (An Urban Affair, 1980, etc.), a polished and generous writer in his novels, has developed a small literary vaudeville act. In 1989's Twice Told Tales, and in this new collection, he has taken as a premise that books ``could be basic to a fiction; as basic as a love affair, a trauma, a house, a mother, a landscape, a lover, a job, or a sexual passion.'' Like homages to recently fashionable critical ideas (the erotics of reading, reader-response theory), the six stories here choose poems or novels, even The Communist Manifesto, to be pivots around which the characters directly spin--and which they indirectly reconstitute. The artifice is stifling. Except for one, the stories bob around in their literary brines unable to address anything beyond the radius of a creative-writing workshop. The only one that truly works--``Bartleby the Scrivener by Herman Melville'': a hack screenwriter's final noncompliance--works because it speaks of Hollywood knowledge, and of people caught, even destroyed by, that knowledge. Nothing else in the book has this emotional reflux. Careful but charmless.