Guy novels that guys don't seem to read

'Lad lit' offers a lens into the book industry and men's lives - for better or for worse.

You can tell a lot by the titles: books like "Love Monkey" and "Booty Nomad," stories like "What I Would Tell Her" and "The Last American Virgin," even an essay collection called "The Bastard on the Couch." The protagonists drift among jobs and relationships, wander through their 30s, flounder in quarter-life crises - fictional men who were supposed to spur a book boom, filling the shelves alongside "chick lit" like so many boyfriends for Bridget Jones.

Instead, after an initial flurry of media coverage and rapt attention, the heralded "lad lit" genre may be going the way of its heroes, with an uncertain future and a lukewarm response. Holden Caulfield, in a dour mood, might have called it "phony."

The most basic obstacle may be habit: It's hard to attract a vast male audience when men constitute as little as 20 percent of readers of novels for adults. That leaves women, and though many may pick up the books for a glimpse of the other side, experts say others don't want such an earnest look at the dark underbelly of masculinity. How delightful is it, after all, to see oneself in pages of meaningless hookups and failed love quests, another notch in a belt of relationship "upgrades"?

Granted, up to now there haven't been many tales of Joe Sixpack, told by Joe himself. But there may not be much of an appetite for them, either - not as long as most men cringe at spending time with an angsty midlife character like J.D. Salinger's Holden Caulfield.

"No male reader wants to be identified with a guy who can't get the girl," says Christopher Napolitano, editorial director of Playboy, one of just a few large circulation magazines that regularly prints fiction - mostly male-perspective stories - since its first edition in 1953. Playboy has published plenty of stories on men's internal lives - John Updike's fiction, for instance, along with that of John Cheever and Vladimir Nabokov. But "the same self-absorption and misery that [lad-lit] narrator is exhibiting on the page that make him a turnoff for women, also make him a turnoff for readers," he says.

So the main audience will have to be women, says Antoinette Kuritz, founder of the annual La Jolla Writers' Conference - women craving, if cringing at, "insight into men's psychic and romantic terrain. If you're expecting men to read lad lit, it will fail."

For years, the fiction industry has sprouted niche markets, far beyond the old categories of mystery, romance, and science fiction. There's African-American literature, gay and lesbian fiction, suspense thrillers, mom lit, "bridezilla" lit (women going after men), even a new genre for postmenopausal women. Christian publishing has soared in the past decade, and romance novels continue to be strong, making up more than 53 percent of all paperback purchases.

Lad lit, too - with early incarnations like Nick Hornby's "High Fidelity" and "About a Boy," both of which became box-office successes - has taken off, in one sense, with legions of new titles. For a time, it was anticipated as publishing's next big thing. But any genre, by nature, has limits.

"Because books are so far out on the cultural margin, the publishing industry is understandably extraordinarily focused on finding a niche, a marketing hook, and an angle," says Steve Almond, author of "My Life in Heavy Metal," a short-story collection that fell neatly into the lad lit genre - though Mr. Almond didn't know it at the time. "It's hard to sell short stories. You have to be able to say: 'You've got to read this, it's mapping this part of the world.' "

To Almond, the phenomenon isn't maddening so much as disappointing. "I was working so hard to write a book that wouldn't get tagged like that," he says. "I just think it's sad, because this is the time when people need art, need to be more aware of their capacities for mercy, and that's what the best art awakens."

Still, no one argues that lad lit has no staying power. The writing is often quite good, says Mr. Napolitano, and genuinely funny stories are no small feat. As so-called "quest books," their themes are universal - "to find a better self, a partner, a job, and in the process of ferreting out relationships good and bad, to come out happy," says Margaret Marbury, executive editor of Harlequin's Red Dress Ink, which publishes women's fiction and romance and, this year, Michael Weinreb's lad-lit collection, "Girl Boy Etc."

Even the now-booming genre of chick lit took its time to gain momentum. Many readers found the very name repellent - some critics of lad lit say that name may be troubling, too, connoting immaturity - and women took a while to snap up predecessors to "Bridget Jones's Diary," which eventually sold over 2 million copies and spawned two sequels, a movie, and countless imitations, since it was published in 1998.

But too often, say experts, lad lit's cleverness wins out over depth, and the plots can make for stories that feel more like half-hour sitcoms than narratives sustainable for 300 pages. Understandably, then, lad-lit authors can be reluctant to see their books marketed as such. Weinreb points to Philip Roth, Richard Price, and Larry McMurtry as lad lit's models, but says there's no such respect now that it's become a genre in itself. To him, the label "almost seems like it's becoming a curse, a stigma in a way." Like Almond, he never intended his own stories as a male answer to chick lit.

But if you write it, says Ms. Kuritz, the genres will come. "It's an 'emperor's new clothes' type of thing. Somebody says it's there, so we all go looking for it - so then, somebody will produce it to show a niche people are interested in."

And lad lit's very existence may inspire other new books. "My hope is that while casting about for more books to read, the quality of those books will only get better," says Sam Pinkus of McIntosh and Otis in New York, literary agents who represent the books of John Steinbeck, Sinclair Lewis, and Thomas Wolfe.

In the title of one of his most famous books, Ernest Hemingway, another lad-lit ancestor, quoted John Donne's poem, "For whom the bell tolls." Some 375 years later, lad-lit idol Nick Hornby used Donne to different effect in "About a Boy": His protagonist, Will Lightman, scoffs at the notion that "no man is an island."

But no book is an island either, and the bell for lad lit hasn't tolled just yet. In the final analysis, say authors, the point of writing and reading is to transcend identity - and if lad lit can do that, and do it well, it's doing its job, regardless of its cubby hole on bookstore shelves.

"That's what art does," says Almond. "It cuts through people's individual demographics and market niches ... to what we all have in common: fear, anxiety, grief, and hope."

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