They Think It's All Over: The Tradition of Lad-Lit, from Kingsley to Martin Amis, Reached Fever Pitch with the Insecure, Introspective Anti-Heroes of the 1990s. but Has the Genre Come to an End. (the Back Half)

Article excerpt

From 1950 to 1999, the fictional genre of lad-lit provided British readers with a romantic, comic, popular male confessional literature. Stretching from Kingsley to Martin Amis, lad-lit was comic in the traditional sense that it had a happy ending. It was romantic in the modern sense that it confronted men's fear of the final embrace of marriage and adult responsibilities. It was confessional in the postmodern sense that the male protagonists and unreliable first-person narrators betrayed, beneath their bravado, the story of their insecurities, panic, cold sweats, performance anxieties and phobias. At the low end of the market, lad-lit was the masculine equivalent of the Bridget Jones phenomenon; at the high end of the high street, it was a masterly examination of male identity in contemporary Britain. But by the beginning of the new millennium, the genre was in decline, suggesting both its literary exhaustion and the need for a new story of masculine identity.

The term "lad" has undergone many permutations of meaning in English literature, from the doomed homoerotic companions of A E Housman's Shropshire, to the violent droogs of A Clockwork Orange and the developmentally arrested good ol' boys of Nineties popular culture. But the anti-heroes of lad-lit are often losers and boozers, liars, wanderers and transients. They include the addicts and petty criminals of Irvine Welsh's Trainspotting and its progeny, and the football-worshipping, lager-loving, flatsharing blokes of Tim Lott, David Baddiel, William Sutcliffe and John O'Farrell, as well as the underemployed thirtysomething heroes of Nick Hornby and Tony Parsons, and the postmodern urban picaresques of Martin Amis, Will Self and Hanif Kureishi. In the New York Times, Michiko Kakutani headlined her review of Nick Hornby,s A bout a Boy: "An uncommitted slacker invents commitments".

But at the same time, lads are attractive, funny, bright, observant, inventive, charming and excruciatingly honest. They are characters who seem to deserve more from life and romance than they are getting; and they are full of rage at those they hold responsible for their dispossession or plight: bosses, parents, girlfriends, male rivals and Americans. Indeed, while they are addicted to American popular culture (records, detective novels, movies, fast food), lads do not much like Americans. Rob in Nick Hornby's High Fidelity loves Raymond Chandler, William Gibson and Kurt Vonnegut; his favourite films are Godfather land II, Taxi Driver, Goodfellas and Reservoir Dogs; his favourite music is Motown and Memphis; and he fantasises about sleeping with an American. But when he does score, he is horrified: American girls talk too much.

Moreover, unlike American-Jewish seriocomic anti-heroes--Portnoy, Humboldt, Jerry Seinfeld and Woody Allen--British lads are obsessed with class distinctions and divisions. Not gentlemen, but not yobs, they defiantly practise the rituals of the working class while aspiring to something better -- better education, better jobs, better women. Rob in High Fidelity says he would like to go to football games, but doesn't like to be with the kind of people who go to football games. Tim Lott's hero in White City Blue declares: "I'm not a yob at all, come to think of it ... Most soccer fans around here stopped being yobs years ago. They read Irvine Welsh and listen to Classic FM." Although they overtly despise the British class system, and the cuteness of theme-park England, lads covertly identify with England's traditional symbols and styles. In the privacy of his flat, Rob, an uncompromising vinyl elitist who makes his living selling harsh and recherche popular records, listens weepily to the Beatles and watches Brook side.

While Martin Amis's generation saw themselves as stand-up novelists, the lad-lit writers of the Nineties were often stand-up comedians moonlighting as novelists: Stephen Fry, Ardal O'Hanlon, David Baddiel, Alexei Sayle, Ben Elton. …