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

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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. …