Some Dare Call It Romance : In a New Breed of Novel, Violence Is Rife and Heroes Always Win; Even Rambo Might Be Smitten

Times Staff Writer

Virtue triumphs. Flag-waving is crucial. Action prevails and the good guy always wins.

With easily identifiable and universally sleazy bad guys--the Mafia, drug dealers, Mideast terrorists and dirty commies, to name just a few--these might be the elements of the latest "Rambo" movie. In fact they're the formula for a burgeoning genre of books that has invaded the market with the force of, well, "The Avenger," "The Cutthroat Cannibals" and "Cody's Army."

Welcome to men's action adventure fiction, a speciality in which 16 publishers now compete in the marketplace with 66 different series. Last year, the classification represented 4.3% of sales for the U.S. paperback market. One publisher, Gold Eagle Books, reported that in 1987 it shipped nearly 500 million copies of titles in its five leading men's adventure series alone.

Not coincidentally, Toronto-based Gold Eagle is a division of Harlequin, a giant of the romance-novel industry. In many ways, say those associated with the men's action adventure market, the genre represents the flip side--the male counterpart--of the romance market.

"Romance doesn't just mean falling in love," said Don Pendleton, the West Covina author of the wildly successful Mack Bolan action adventure series. "It's that whole movement of psyche that involves itself with an adventurous nature."

'A Very Romantic Idea'

In spite of what critics condemn as their gratuitous violence, men's adventure books really resemble romances, he maintained, in that "the idea is that you really are larger than you realize. You're able to take command of things, sort of like the male role. You're able to make things happen.

"This is a very romantic idea, because we really don't live in that kind of world," he added. "The world tries to beat down that kind of individual."

Still, the stereotype lingers that while she is in the bedroom, sprawled out on satin sheets, munching bonbons and devouring the latest romance novel, he is in the living room, glued to the newest Sylvester Stallone or Arnold Schwarzenegger video. And whatever he's doing, he's got a beer in his hand, not a book.

"When I see men reading these books on the bus, I'm always amazed. I take a double look," said Diane Moggi, an editor at Gold Eagle.

"Most people say 'I didn't know people who watch Rambo read,' but that's absolutely not true," added Jeanne Tiedge, executive editor at Popular Books, which publishes at least one action adventure title per month.

Publishers say male action adventure readers range between 22 and 50 years old, with the majority hovering around 38. About 2% are female. They may or may not be college-educated and their careers, said Anne Brayley, product manager at Gold Eagle Books, are "fairly average," encompassing "teachers to blue-collar workers to professional people."

"I was surprised when I first started working here," Brayley said. "I expected to see sort of gunslinging redneck types. I was quite surprised to find out that these readers are an average group of people."

The one common experience among these readers, said Gold Eagle's editorial director, Randall Toy, tends to be "some association with military service."

Men's adventure fiction, he said, "comes out of a very, very core experience in American culture where many, many families have been touched by military service."

The books do not necessarily glorify military duty, he added, but "see it warts and all, and recognize its value."

For all the readers, Toy said, the appeal of this "entertainment fiction" seems to lie in the fact that in an average of 192 brief pages, "someone takes action, and justice is seen to be done, rather than just heard to be done."

Short and uncomplicated, the books are "lunch-hour reading," said Brian Thomsen, a senior editor at Warner Books said. "These are books to read on the train to work, or while waiting for the tank of your pickup to be filled."

But readers also return to installment after installment of the monthly series action adventure books because they are so predictable, consistently delivering to the reader exactly what he wants to read.

"J. R. R. Tolkien said about hobbits that they like to read the same books over and over again because they know how they're going to turn out," Thomsen said. "It's the same with action adventure books. We like to know who the guys in the black hats are and who the guys in the white hats are."

In the "Executioner" series, one of the first major successes in this category, "the good guy was the good old American Vietnam veteran going up against the evil Mafia," Thomsen said. "Now you can take the evil Mafia and fill in evil scientists wanting to blow up America, and you've got the formula. The ones that have really, really worked are the ones that have been able to take the genre, remain within the formula, but add something new."

"You know the good guys are going to win," Toy said. "Just like Perry Mason never lost a case."

Pendleton, who pioneered the "Executioner" series, had 57 million copies in print with Pinnacle, his original publisher, the last time he checked--in 1982. Worldwide, he said the figure was "somewhere around 100 million." Today, he said, laughing, "I have no idea what the figures are."

Idea Born in 1968

A former aerospace engineer and former air traffic controller, Pendleton, 60, was writing science fiction when, in 1968, he came up with the first "Executioner" book.

"I just thought it was time for some kind of statement to be made to the effect no matter how civilized we are, and how great our ideals are, we still do live in a basically savage world, and we need champions who will protect us and defend us," he recalled.

Prior to that, Pendleton said, "we sort of lost touch with the hero in fiction." The hero is "still very much alive in the mass subconscious," he went on, "because we struck such a chord all over the world."

In offering his own definition of a hero, Pendleton also disputes charges that the books glamorize violence.

"My idea of a hero was not a psychopath, not people who want to go out and slay and see blood flow," he said. "My idea of a hero is someone who would really rather be doing almost anything but that, but takes it up as a calling, a service, hating it all the while. Now this is a hero, a truly courageous person. Someone who loves the thrill of going out there and smearing blood is a psychopath."

"I can't deny that the books contain a certain level of violence," Gold Eagle's Randall Toy said. "But from our point of view, it's not gratuitous violence."

At Gold Eagle, moreover, there is a company policy "never to go beyond the bounds of the law" in these books. Heroes, for example, would never stoop to using unregistered weapons.

At Bantam Books, male action adventure editor Greg Tobin likened the genre to the "blood-and-thunder pulp dime novels of the 19th Century." He also cited a similarity to Western novels, "in that they are escape reading, basically disposable, in paperback format, short and formulary."

"I always jokingly say Harlequin or Gold Eagle books are sort of potato chips for the mind," Anne Brayley said. "Everybody gets his fix."

But she quickly defended the genre, saying, "I don't think as a company we've ever pretended we publish great literature, but we do publish great entertainment."

Pendleton, who has scrapped male action adventure to write about a psychic detective, believes the male action adventure books can help "instill some ideals" in their readers.

"These books don't create the world, they mirror the subconscious hunger," Pendleton said. "As long as the hunger is there, they'll continue."

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