Readers who haven't opened a western novel or a romance since high school might be startled, as I was recently, to learn how immensely popular these books are - selling millions upon millions of copies a year to readers of all ages, while other parts of the American publishing industry are in a serious slump.
The vast majority of westerns and romances are the literary equivalent of junk food, yet a few have style, imagination, and other evidences of skill, care , and something besides a profit motive on the part of their authors and editors. Another thing the better ones seem to have in common is a cast of can-do characters - heroes and heroines with purpose, spunk, decency, and an ability to triumph over the odds against them.
And I suppose it should come as no shock that such qualities appeal to readers, especially in a period when morose introspection, despair, or at best stoicism appear to reign supreme in fiction. Looking at the sales figures, one can't help wondering if ''serious'' fiction hasn't abrogated its responsibility by forsaking the territory of the heart for the shadows and canyons of the psyche. Why can't more of our best contemporary writers find a way to feed mind and spirit without crossing the thin boundary into schlock?
Recently I spoke with the editor behind Dell's answer to ''Days of Our Lives'' and to the man whom the book world would have to call the King of the Cowboys.
Louis L'Amour has written 85 western novels over the last 30 years, and they're allm still in print. His publisher estimates the number of copies worldwide (in Swedish, French, Japanese, Greek, even Serbo-Croatian) at 130 million. He has 34 additional stories under way, and shows no signs of flagging.
His readers send him several thousand letters each year, he told me recently - many of them as laudatory as the one that arrived during the '60s from a marine serving in Vietnam who wanted a copy of each of the author's books sent to his 12-year-old son in Texas. If he were killed in action, this soldier felt a good legacy would be the L'Amour books.
The characters in this amicable author's straightforward, vivid stories have grit, decency, moral fiber, and that can-do attitude I mentioned. L'Amour feels westerns have perennial appeal because, ''in the first place, they're good, exciting stories. In the second, they reveal a part of our history. We're people born to push out into the unknown, move in new directions, not to accept the settled pattern of things.''
L'Amour thinks of himself as a storyteller in the tradition of Homer, Chaucer , or the spinners of the Arabian Nights tales. ''Although few people do it . . . , I write my books to be read aloud.''
The Dakota-born author, whose great-grandfather was killed by Indians and whose grandfather fought against them, now divides his time between homes in Los Angeles and Colorado, and libraries around the United States and abroad, where he does his research. He considers himself fortunate to have ''come on the scene when a lot of the old-time westerners were still around. I've known five men who knew Billy the Kid personally and well. I've known, altogether, about 30 old-time outlaws or gunfighters.''
Outlaws figure into L'Amour novels, of course, but the focus is usually on courageous, self-sufficient types like Mary Breydon in the author's latest hard cover, ''The Cherokee Trail'' (New York, Bantam Books, 179 pp., $12.95). After the murder of her husband in the East at the close of the Civil War, Mrs. Breydon moves to Colorado with her young daughter to run a station on the stagecoach line - a situation that allows the reader to discover the Old West along with her. The prose is crisp and evocative, the narrative swift, and the characters engaging.
Discovering and telling stories is more than a vocation for L'Amour. ''People ask me what I do for fun - I write. That's what I'd rather do than anything else. There are millions of stories to tell. I'm going to cover the period from 1600 to 1900 pretty well before I'm through.''
If L'Amour's work is a labor of love, Dell editor Anne Gisonny's is strictly business - the big business of romance.
Ms. Gisonny edits Dell's two-year-old line of paperback romantic novels known as Candlelight Ecstasy. She told me recently that the girl-meets-boy genre accounts for an incredible 20 to 40 percent of all mass market paperbacks sold today, some $200 million in industrywide sales last year. Like Dell, other publishers are getting into the act.
For more than a decade, Harlequin Books Ltd. of Canada was the sole large publisher of paperback romances. In 1979, when Harlequin took over its US distribution from Simon & Schuster, the American publisher decided to launch a competitive line of its own, Silhouette Books. Then Dell, Jove, and Bantam rushed into the field, and Avon, Ballantine, and New American Library weren't far behind.
What's more, the B. Dalton and Waldenbooks chains have opened ''romance center'' displays in their stores, and many independent booksellers are following suit.
Romance readers are ''99.9 percent women,'' according to Ms. Gisonny, and over half of them are in the 25-to-35 age group. The writers of those books that sell 200,000 to 250,000 copies - not rare - gross about $30,000. Many authors are under contract to write more than one book a year, with the most prolific turning out four or five.
Ever since Harlequin set the trend, the plots have been predictable: An inexperienced younger woman meets a self-assured, well-off, well-built man eight to 10 years older. Things immediately click between them, but something - often another woman - intervenes to draw them apart. Never mind. By Page 200 they'll be back together, headed for what is known today as a permanent relationship.
''Readers know the book is going to have a strong romance and a happy ending, '' Ms. Gisonny says. ''They know they're not going to get involved with the characters for 200 pages and then find out that the hero dies or goes to prison.'' This is part of the powerful appeal, she says. She also notes that the love scenes are getting longer and more explicit. No longer does the ring of a telephone or a knock at the door roll back the wave of passion.