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Taking things literary

A quick glance at any of today's paperback best-seller lists offers the unstartling news that most of the titles earning a niche there are novels well endowed with chills, thrills, and page-turning plots.

These attributes, rather than literary aspirations, are what most paperback houses require for their major fiction releases; time and sales have proved that these are what paperback readers favor. And yet within all but a couple of paperback companies there lurks a division catering to readers who appreciate books, both fiction and nonfiction, with greater substance than the bulk of popular successes supply. Avon, for example, has its Bard line, New American Library its Mentor imprint, and Pocket Books its Washington Square Press.

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A significant percentage of such imprints' lists is usually made up of books that the world considers classics, of the near or distant past, and many of these find their lucrative way onto school and college reading lists. But because of this educational aroma, it is a rare book from a place like Washington Square Press that claims a place on best-seller lists.

Despite the odds, Washington Square Press has a current best seller. Holding a slot on the charts, as it has been doing for a great many months, is ''The Color Purple,'' by Alice Walker. Winner of the American Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, it has nearly 1 million copies in print today, a tremendous figure for a $5.95 trade paperback not written by Kathleen Woodiwiss, Rosemary Rogers, or some such romance novelist.

Contributing further to the visibility of Washington Square Press in today's literary paperback sweepstakes is its recent edition of ''Heritage,'' by Anthony West, the illegitimate son of Rebecca West and H. G. Wells. The novel, previously published in hard cover in the United States, was only published lately in England, having been withheld from publication there because of its less than gracious fictional portraits of the author's parents. After Rebecca West's death last year, Britons got the book for the first time, and it included a new introduction by Mr. West, in which he revealed the cruel depth of his mother's distaste for him. Washington Square Press is the first to publish ''Heritage'' with its new introduction in this country.

To ascertain what else is afoot at the Pocket Books imprint, the person to ask is its editor in chief, Patrick O'Connor. Although a publishing veteran of many years, a number of them spent as the head of Popular Library, Mr. O'Connor moved to Washington Square Press only a little over a year ago.

O'Connor is an editor comfortable with books of all kinds. At Popular Library he published Rebecca West's books, as well as those by Helen Van Slyke. In his present position, his primary function is to manage Washington Square Press, but he also acquires books for the mainstream Pocket Books line. One of his coming novels as a Pocket Book is a new piece of fiction by Barney Leason, a writer known more for the chills, thrills, and page-turning plots than for literary quality.

''At Washington Square Press we're publishing three to five books a month now ,'' O'Connor says - ''literary books, but they're not all short stories by Kafka , you know.'' Nevertheless, the press does have on its list books that range from Shakespeare plays to ''Crime and Punishment,'' from Robert Frost's poetry to ''The Basic Kafka.''

The primary thrust today, however, is on more or less contemporary books, critically applauded fiction and nonfiction. Among recent releases are ''Careful , He Might Hear You by Sumner,'' by Locke Elliot; ''The Elected Member,'' by Bernice Rubens. Coming up are Russell Hoban's ''Pilgermann''; an updated version of ''Russia,'' by Robert Kaiser; and ''Saint Jack,'' also by Paul Theroux.

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If none of these books are likely to approach the success enjoyed by ''The Color Purple,'' a novel of unusually gripping emotional impact, O'Connor remains hopeful. '' 'The Color Purple' does just what everyone wants a book to do,'' he says with a characteristic quip. ''Make money while doing God's work.''

Hard-cover houses hope O'Connor will find such virtue in some of their more obscure properties. ''Mostly what I get from them are the books they can't sell anywhere else. They're not fooling me,'' O'Connor jokes with some truth. An imprint like Washington Square Press doesn't have a big cash cache to pay for reprint rights, so O'Connor doesn't usually have smash best sellers dangled before him. (''The Color Purple'' became one only after its paperback publication.) ''I get a lot of first novels that no one else wants,'' he says. Then he adds, ''But you can find great things there. One first novel that we have coming up is 'I Wish This War Were Over,' by Diana O'Hehir.It was published by Atheneum in cloth, and it is wonderful. It's the first novel of a 62 -year-old poet.''

Such books are not the usual fare pushed by paperback sales forces. Historically, these salesmen have obtained better orders for books with chills, thrills, and page-turning plots. In the past few years, however, a significant development has brought new allies for literary works into the field.

''There's a whole new breed of these people today,'' says O'Connor, ''the English-major book salesmen. You'd be surprised by how many there are. And saleswomen, too. I remember once, long ago, I was publishing three books by Dorothy Day, founder of the Catholic Worker movement. One of the salesmen said to me, 'I can understand doing one book, but why do three by Doris Day?' ''

O'Connor looks for quality to add to the line wherever he can find it. It may even be a television tie-in. One of his mottoes, he notes with a grin, is ''Think Masterpiece Theatre.''

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