THE recent titles read like something out of the '50s: ``How to Make a Man Fall in Love with You,'' ``How to Get a Man to Make a Commitment.'' It's as if Doris Day had returned with those big blue eyes batting -- the girl next door turned predator, trying, in that awful '50s phrase, to snag a man.
They're not only back, they're selling like bridal gowns in June -- these saddest of how-to books, to be catalogued perhaps as Man-Trap Manuals.
For easy reference, think of Man-Trap Manuals as nonfiction romance novels and you sort of have it. Then realize that the market for this kind of self-help publishing has undergone enormous expansion in the last decade.
The percentage of never-married women between 25 and 34 has more than doubled in the last 10 years, according to Louise Bernikow, the author of a new book, ``Alone in America: The Search for Companionship.'' Some 37 million women in the US are single, divorced, or widowed. Everything from a shortage of men to the demands of fast-track careers gets cited as a contributing factor. But whatever the cause, the results are the same: a sociological phenomenon that has been dubbed ``the feminization of loneliness.''
It's easy to make fun of Man-Trap Manuals. They're so self-conscious, right down to the embarrassingly cute descriptions of the quarry -- Mr. Romance, Mr. Wanderlust, Mr. Independence, Mr. Eligibility. Then, just to give a pseudo-scientific air, the unvarying case histories are detailed. All the Jennifers, Karens, Beths, Sandras, and Maggies! In the end, there is the desperately cheerful message: ``You can do it, too!''
But the confusion and loneliness these near-parodies express should make anyone hesitate to laugh too smartly at them. One guidebook -- ``How to Find the Love of Your Life: 90 Days to a Permanent Relationship'' -- seems to summarize this confusion, with the Tin Pan Alley lilt of the title set against the subtitle's hip-'80s tone.
Cinderella may be looking for Prince Charming again, but the Cinderella that reads these books is, as likely as not, a high-tech single, and nothing is simple anymore. One author points out, with total seriousness, that a successful dating strategy today involves ``becoming stylish, independent, well informed, and self-motivated while maintaining a feminine mystique.''
At any rate, the woman who has developed the strength to secure her working place in a man's world can hardly revert to playing the blushing violet after hours.
But her upbringing can trap her between two styles.
``In general, women, if they were born before the '60s, have this idea that romance is supposed to pursue them, they're not supposed to pursue it,'' says Jane Carpinito, author of ``Husband-hunting: How to Win at the Mating Game,'' to be published in July. ``So they take a passive stance.''
And yet, because most of the readers of these books have had some degree of career success, their expectations are far from passive. Speaking in a telephone interview with the Monitor, Mrs. Carpinito elaborates:
``The new materialism is interfering very badly. Some women are out looking for men who make lots and lots of money. Rather than thinking about whether they have a combined income of $80,000, say, they're concerned about whether he makes $80,000.''
One of the new Man-Trap Manuals bears the title ``How to Find Romance after Forty.'' Clearly most of the Cinderellas looking for the prince with the glass slipper (and the BMW) are older than their counterparts in the past. This lends most of these books a vague air of panic under the cool, commanding voice of the strategist. Between the lines loom the recent statistics from a Harvard-Yale study indicating that women's chances for marriage drop from 50 percent at age 25 to 5 percent at age 35.
But beneath all the confusion of how-to, there is the fundamental confusion: What are we doing?
Today, Ms. Bernikow writes, ``Men and women are equally confused about what intimacy is, or love or marriage, [and] what one might reasonably expect from a partner.''
As one illustration, she points to the application forms submitted by clients of a video dating service. The men, she found, ``were looking for some odd and impossible combination of independent women -- i.e., women they would not have to support financially -- and women who would be home when they arrived at the end of a long working day.''
By contrast, she continues, ``the most consistent thing women said they were looking for in men was a sense of humor. It was clear that women didn't need men to take care of them financially or to provide them with identities or give them a life or any of the things previous generations of women were dependent on men for. They needed fun.''
Well, maybe. But many women, tired of close encounters of the casual kind of the '70s, are apparently looking for something more -- or less. On the shelf above, or below, the Man-Trap Manuals stand other new books, like ``Successfully Single'' and ``The Joy of Being Single,'' subtitled ``Stop Putting Your Life on Hold and Start Living!''
All of which proves that men publishers who use their heads will never lose money counting upon women's hearts.
But it also proves that the breathless evolution of women's attitudes has not stopped spinning yet. The neo-traditionalism represented by Man-Trap Manuals is only the latest stage in transition. As they used to say in the soap operas of the '50s -- which were concerned about little else but the snagging and keeping of a man -- ``Stay tuned.''