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Publishers Promise Passion by the Page : Reading: The new year will bring more soul-searching, new tales about relationships--and a blessed absence of diet books.

1994 FORECAST: Trends and Ideas for the New Year. One in a series.

January 03, 1994|ELIZABETH MEHREN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Stories where love truly triumphs . . . family sagas that actually make you want to read to the end . . . spiritual odysseys that are more than lite literature . . . fiction that grapples with tough and tender issues, like how three women rally around a fourth who is dying of breast cancer . . . a search, via the printed page, for a place called home.

Readers, take heart. The new year in books is upon us--and it promises to be a time of renewed passion for the soul and rekindled joy in relationships.

In a variety of literary guises, values will be reassessed and reclaimed. Intellectual enlightenment will be possible for the ordinary mortal in the form of serious books that inform, without talking down.

Perhaps reflecting the Clintons' attempt to revise our health care system, books about all aspects of health are in vogue in this new literary year. But diet books are out. "Totally dead," said Barb Burg of Bantam Books in New York.

Since 1994 will also bring a raft of romantic fiction--which publishers regard as a notch above romance novels--publishing seems to have offered tacit approval to the fantasy of holing up with a mushy book and a bowl of bonbons.

In 1993, a small, sugary novel called "The Bridges of Madison County" made the Midwest sound downright sexy--and in the process became a gigantic bestseller. The influence of Robert James Waller's fictional foray into the heartland will continue, said his publisher, Laurence J. Kirshbaum, who predicted that "what you will see is bringing books back to Iowa."

Many fiction writers who have inhabited the world of glitz "are looking to go back home," said Kirshbaum, president and chief executive officer of Warner Books in New York. "Demographers have always told us that everyone migrated from Iowa to California, and now they are migrating back."

Julie Garwood's "Prince Charming," for example, a 1994 Pocket Books hardcover title, takes the standard romance recipe of a beautiful young Englishwoman who has been dumped by her heartless cad of a fiance--and moves her to Montana.

But readers of fiction will also be exploring their diverse ethnic origins in 1994. Again, it is the wild success of one such multi-generational saga--Amy Tan's "The Joy Luck Club," published by Putnam's in 1989--that has sent publishers, and the public, scrambling for stories of ancestral struggle. "Rise the Euphrates," by Carol Edgarian, is frankly described by its publisher, Random House, as " 'The Joy Luck Club' for Armenians."

Sandy Dijkstra, the Del Mar-based literary agent who represents Tan, attributed the growing interest in multicultural fiction to a dual search for roots and gripping stories.

"People want stories," said Dijkstra, referring to her stable of hyphenated American authors, "and these writers are more in tune with stories" of their heritages.

Often epic in scope--not to mention length--these heroic accounts frequently become fodder for book clubs and reading groups, another exploding literary phenomenon in 1994. Brian Baxter, proprietor of Baxter's Books in Minneapolis, said literary gatherings are burgeoning in businesses, neighborhoods and churches.

"You're seeing people using books as a way to create relationships that we haven't had over the last two or three decades," Baxter said.

"It's an artificial society that they are creating, a community," he said. "They share the experience of a book--and also of their own lives."

But while Baxter said such reading groups help fuel the demand for "very good fiction," Dijkstra, for one, worries that this is an endangered category. An onslaught of commercialism has produced "a real crisis in fiction right now," Dijkstra said. The novel of manners, as one example, is virtually extinct, she said.

Moreover, she added, mainstream fiction targeted at women apparently is not selling as well as it once did.

At Random House, however, there are high hopes that "Talk Before Sleep," by Elizabeth Berg, will prove to be an exception. The story probes the frank intimacy and the fierce loyalty that mark women's friendships in the 1990s--and shows how both are put to the test when one friend develops breast cancer.

But a male writer who attempted a similar level of emotional candor might run into problems, Dijkstra said. Men in 1994, she maintained, "are in deep trouble in terms of fiction. What publishers want from men is thrillers--and it's a tough world for a male writer if he's not Clancy, Koontz, Crichton or Grisham."

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But men are not the only ones reading thriller books. Kirshbaum, at Warner Books, said a noticeable trend for the new year is "the muscularization of the novel in terms of female tastes." Partly as an educational effort--a genuine attempt by women to understand the male portion of the planet, Kirshbaum said--"women are reading more of these books. They are crossing over more into an area we used to think of as 'men's fiction.' "

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