WANT MORE DATES?

Twenty Tips to More Dates

In the '90s

By Marie France

Paris Press. 135 pp. Paperback, $12.95

WERE YOU BORN

FOR EACH OTHER?

Finding, Catching and

Keeping the Love of Your Life

By Kevin Leman

Delacorte. 259 pp. $17.95

SINGLE FILE

By Susan Deitz and Anne Cassidy

St. Martin's. 317 pp. Paperback, $4.95

BEATING THE MARRIAGE ODDS

When You Are Smart, Single,

And Over Thirty-Five

By Barbara Lovenheim

Morrow. 283 pp. $17.95

AMERICA's 37 million "surplus" single women remain a fertile market for self-help books, a dispiriting reminder that, though money can't buy happiness, the hope that it might springs eternal.

Blame these blighted times. Fifty years ago, marriageable young women had regiments of resident maiden aunts to serve as their manuals on man-hunting. Determined Aunt Ida alternately counseled hot pursuit ("The early bird gets the worm, dear") and playing hard-to-get ("Boys don't like to be chased, dear"). "Arty" Aunt Delia urged the development of the Inner Woman ("If you are beautiful on the inside, then you'll be beautiful on the outside, dear"), and cranky Aunt Jo, the incorrigible spinster, said she had no truck with men, anyway.

Today, instead of washing all of this down with Lapsang Souchong and seed cake, modern women have to choke down the same bromides in gassy tomes artfully priced just below the pain threshold.

Twenty Tips to More Dates in the '90s actually crosses the pain threshold: At $12.95, the reader is paying almost 65 cents a pop for hints like "Make the man feel like a king," and "Check out the coffee shop in the lobby of your building."

It's not clear when Marie France actually found the time to write this book: By her own account, she has had 421 dates with 41 men in the past two years. This may explain the frequent grammatical mistakes thrown out willy-nilly as she hurtles, at steeple-chase pace, from tip to horrifying tip.

Church can be a happy hunting ground, but watch out, "A service in which you count nothing but white-haired people may not be too promising a worshiping place." Continuing education classes are an excellent source of dates, with an important caveat: "Never be the first student to arrive. You risk sitting down and later being surrounded by women, yuk!"

Is he interested in banking, France asks? It's your favorite subject! Is he a lawyer? You're fascinated! Does he like college basketball? You love it! And remember: the man always pays!

One wonders, were France to move on to sex manuals, if she would counsel faking orgasm. We'll probably never know (Tip: "Remember, once you're dating, the best way to stay dating is by not sleeping with them").

Were You Born for Each Other? is a horse of a different color: a hobby horse, ridden into the lucrative paddock of marriage politics.

Kevin Leman's ide'e fixe is birth order, a theory he manages to simplify so thoroughly that his personality profiles have all the precision of a newspaper horoscope.

Leman calls on such authorities as McCall's magazine to bolster his assertion that the order in which children are born into a family is the predominant molder of character. Education, alcoholism, family violence, bereavement, divorce and television have also been known to shape lives; Leman, however, gives them short shrift.

Under Leman's system, those first-date attempts to dislodge information about astrological signs, social status and social disease should also include some gentle grilling about siblings. Otherwise, the last-born sister of girls could find herself dating the oldest brother of sisters, or, even worse, another "Lastborn"!

If Leman's narrative voice were a suit it would be a loud plaid. It is the sort of voice likely to address its female readers as "gals." It is the voice of a storefront preacher or a door-to-door salesman, a patter combining cornpone hometruths with flashes of shrewdness. There are frequent admiring references to daytime talk show hosts and, indeed, these programs would appear to be Leman's logical ports of call when Were You Born for Each Other? hits the bookstores.

After more than 200 pages of pop psychology, Leman closes his book with a moving tribute to unconditional love. Here he quotes Corinthians, not McCall's. And it is when he trades his soapbox for a pulpit that Leman's voice rings truest.

Technically, Single File belongs to a slightly different, though equally popular, genre of how-to books aimed not at snaring men but at living without them. Susan Deitz writes for every woman who has ever mistaken men for destiny, and who has then been aghast to find herself deprived of both.

Susan Deitz, a syndicated columnist, and Anne Cassidy offer a road map to self-sufficiency. Here are 317 pages of self-affirming exercises, empowerment exercises, meditation exercises, self-love exercises. Here are the tactics for waging hand-to-hand combat with loneliness, low self-esteem and despair.

Their book is thoughtful, well-intentioned and based on Deitz's own experiences as a widow, singles club leader and lecturer. It is also intensely, and unintentionally, sad. For those single women incapable of imagining life without His and Her bath towels, happiness can be very hard-won indeed. Its cost. Eternal vigilance. THESE BOOKS are all painful to read. They could not exist in such supply if they were not in such demand.

Where are all these desperate, man-starved women? The sustained popularity of this genre suggests they are everywhere, in Everywoman. They appeal to every woman who feels incomplete without a relationship, and every woman who feels incomplete within one.

And yet, most single women over 30 seem perfectly content with their lives. They shuttle good-naturedly enough between work and family and friends, who often as not become an extended family. Sometimes romance is one dish on that smorgasbord; sometimes it is not.

But on those mornings when they wake up feeling there's a great big hole where the middle of their lives ought to be, those self-help books are out there, waiting.

When our grandmothers were in a funk they blew their mad money on silly little hats. Their grand-daughters blow their mad money on silly little self-help books. On your head, or in your head, these modest outlays serve their ephemeral purpose. The danger lies in thinking they alone can change your life.

The fact is that a multi-million dollar industry has sprung up aimed at selling women the illusion that they can control demographic reality, that if they just redo their wardrobes, or retool their inner selves, they can find romantic love. Women who buy into that philosophy can too easily fall into the trap of believing, when the longed-for mate doesn't materialize, that the failure is theirs, not the system's.

Barbara Lovenheim is that rarity in this genre, an author who refuses to hold her readers responsible for the fact there simply aren't enough single men to go around. Beating the Odds is written for women with the strength to face facts, and the desire to face them down.

Lovenheim demolishes that much-quoted Yale study that claimed single women over 40 have a higher statistical chance of dying in a terrorist attack than of ever marrying. She cites more recent research which suggests that even women over 50 are more likely to marry than be audited. And she writes about women who have beaten the odds and married at 40, at 50, at 60.

No magic solutions are offered. No dizzying claims are made. Drawing on case histories and her own experience, Lovenheim evaluates the relative, limited effectiveness of everything from personals ads to makeovers. She suggests that the odds are most likely to shift for women who can undo their social conditioning and marry "down," choosing men younger or less successful than themselves. Dignity must not be sacrificed in the quest for love, Lovenheim asserts, but prejudices may.

Interestingly, although Lovenheim liberally quotes her predecessors, none of her triumphant brides credits a self-help book with her success.

Although inspiration can be drawn from other people's happy endings, the women profiled in Beating the Odds are still exceptions to the rule. Lovenheim herself was still single when her book went to print.

Perhaps it is too late for the rest of us "surplus" women. If so, the least we can do is consider ourselves maiden aunts-in training. In another 30 years, 37 million porch swings will be swaying gently as we dole out Lapsang Souchong, seed cake and advice to nieces and grandnieces still young enough to think advice can make a difference.

Vicki Barker is a reporter based in London.