They think it's all over

The tradition of lad-lit, from Kingsley to Martin Amis, reached fever pitch with the insecure, intro

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, flat-sharing 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 About 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 I and 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 Brookside.

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. They were based in the manic lad culture of the decade, typified by the magazines Viz, Loaded, FHM, Maxim, GQ, Esquire, by cult DJs like Chris Evans, and by the hit TV show Men Behaving Badly. The protagonist of such books is the young man on the make, mindlessly pursuing booze, babes and football. His ineptitude, drunkenness and compulsive materialism were part of his charm.

But beneath the crass surface, these stories were also about male coming of age, the ability to form a marriage and accept parenthood. Lads of the Nineties were no longer able to blame the class and caste system or the ludicrous narcissism of their fathers for their difficulties. All their problems are their own fault. According to Hornby's Rob: "Here's how not to plan a career: a) split up with girlfriend; b) junk college; c) go to work in record shop; d) stay in record shop for rest of life." At the same time, they are the most introspective of all the fictional lads, constantly self-monitoring and monologic. Rob sums up his life: "I'm here in this stupid little flat, on my own, and I'm 35 years old, and I own a tiny, failing business, and my friends don't seem to be friends at all but people whose phone numbers I haven't lost." Matt Beckford, in Mike Gayle's Turning Thirty, imitates Rob by looking up all his old girlfriends in an attempt to plot the trajectory of his failure.

As the marriage of Princess Diana was a motif for Martin Amis in the Eighties, so Diana's death was an occasion for lad-lit in the Nineties. In Helen Fielding's Bridget Jones column, still running in the Independent in the summer of 1997, Bridget takes a copy of Vogue, Milk Tray chocolates and a packet of Silk Cut cigarettes to Kensington Palace as memorial tributes to Princess Diana. She writes in her diary: "Really she was the patron saint of Singleton women because she started off like the archetypal fairy tale doing what we all thought we were supposed to do, ie, marry a handsome prince, and she was honest enough to say that life is not like that."

Diana's death appears as a motif in David Baddiel's second novel, Whatever Love Means, which takes its ironic title from Prince Charles's notorious disclaimer about his feelings in a 1981 TV interview on the eve of his engagement. The novel begins on the day of Diana's death, with a statement meant to shock: "Vic fucked her first the day Diana died." Baddiel's laddish protagonist has hay fever and persuades the woman that his reddened eyes are tokens of his tears of grief; she goes to bed with him believing that he is a sensitive New Man who shares her emotions. In fact, Vic scores while England mourns. "At first Vic thought he was just exploiting one individual's grief, but then he realised he was exploiting the whole nation's . . . he felt like each day was a bank holiday." Despite this hard-boiled opener, Whatever Love Means is a meticulously plotted medical mystery story, in which Vic's heartlessness is thoroughly punished and reproved, and in which his hay fever too turns out to be a significant clue. Baddiel makes serious use of the public spectacle of Diana's death to analyse the cheapening of human relationships in a culture where women's love and grief are regularly exploited.

Similarly, Tim Lott's White City Blue ends with the hero's meditation on his wedding: "I have a reason [not to marry], because marriage is a leap in the dark, against the odds . . . Is my freedom gone? What the fuck is that? A little drop of life between childhood and marriage. It's not all that it's cracked up to be. Marriage is what happens when you learn that life is bigger than you." Hornby's Rob concludes: "It's only just beginning to occur to me that it's important to have something going on somewhere, at work or at home, otherwise you just cling on."

Michael Adams, in John O'Farrell's The Best a Man Can Get, gives up his fantasies about the single life and accepts his responsibilities as husband and father: "Everyone expected me to say that looking after my children all day was the most wonderfully fulfilling thing I'd ever done. Well, it was certainly the hardest thing I'd ever done, but nothing changed my opinion that small children are boring. But now I understand that having kids and raising a family was hard, because anything really worth achieving is hard."

In an interview shortly after the Los Angeles conference at which I presented this essay, Martin Amis said: "What is this lads stuff? There was a lecture at this conference called Lads' Lit, and it traced the line between Kingsley and me and Nick Hornby, but I don't think even Nick Hornby is laddish really. I mean, lads don't write novels. They're down the pub. Being a writer means that you spend at least half your life by yourself; that's the defining thing. A lad is not a lad by himself, he's only a lad when he's with the lads. You can't walk around in your own house being a lad, can you? It's a communal activity."

Of course, the authors of lad-lit novels are not lads themselves; their similarity lies in the themes and techniques of their fiction. But by 2001, the genre was showing signs of decline, perhaps because of authorial self-consciousness about being part of a trend, and perhaps because the formula itself had become named and familiar; there was even a lad-lit category on amazon.com. "For a year or two," wrote Rachel Campbell-Johnston in the Times, "lad-lit was as fashionable as the era it was set in. Nick Hornby, Tony Parsons and Tim Lott turned out wise-cracking nostalgia that was snapped up by blokes. But then too many people started to copy them. The genre that they generated has long since gone stale." Some of the novelists themselves had moved on to darker plots; Nick Hornby's pessimistic fable How to Be Good disappointed readers looking for more humorous studies of the male psyche. In Little Green Man, the poet Simon Armitage attempted a postmodern twist on the genre, to critics' dismay. "If you're going to write a lads' novel, you really have to go for it," wrote Phil Daoust in the Guardian.

At the same time, ageing male novelists including Saul Bellow, John Updike and Philip Roth were recreating some of the themes of classic lad-lit in stories about elderly roues, still dodging commitment and pursuing gratification - the Viagra Monologues. As traditional distinctions of maturity and coming of age collapsed, lad-lit, too, needed to find new stories to tell.

Elaine Showalter's most recent book, Inventing Herself: claiming a feminist intellectual heritage, is now available in paperback from Picador

This is an edited version of an essay by Elaine Showalter that appears in On Modern Fiction edited by Zachary Leader and published by Oxford University Press on 3 October