PERTINENT PLAYERS: Essays on the Literary Life by Joseph Epstein (W. W. Norton: $24.95; 384 pp.). It doesn't exactly inspire confidence, the inventory of literary figures contemplated by Joseph Epstein in his most recent collection of essays: It's almost always a pleasure to read about Orwell or Mencken or James, but William Hazlitt? Desmond MacCarthy? The aphorist Chamfort? It's quickly evident, though, that Epstein, editor of the American Scholar, is not intent on the scholastic rehabilitation of minor lights and has-beens: he'd much rather examine writerly careers, and the nature of writerly success, than his subjects' literary output. Epstein draws few generalizations in the course of his gracious, sympathetic sketches, but it's difficult to read his essay on Chamfort without seeing it as emblematic of a writer's search for form; the assessment of MacCarthy as a cautionary tale about literary journalism's tendency to sap inspiration; the discussions of Carl Sandburg's and George Orwell's posthumous reputations being good examples, respectively, of the perils of self-promotion and the rewards of personal integrity.