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Love monkeys: Men write about their experiences with women

Posted: Sunday, March 21, 2004

NEW YORK Will Leitch was 21 and in love with a woman who was ''blond and beautiful, sleek and refined.'' He gave her his grandmother's engagement ring and set the date.

To get a little money for the impending union, Leitch decided to be a contestant on Comedy Central's ''Win Ben Stein's Money.'' The night before taping, his beloved approached him on the balcony of their apartment and gave him back the ring.

She said she didn't want to get married, needed to be alone. She left him to go hike the Appalacian mountains, and he never saw her again.

Leitch learned later that his fiancee had come into an inheritance that made her a millionaire.

To mend his broken heart back then, in 1997, Leitch began to share his experience in a series of essays he wrote for various Web sites. Those online columns have been made into a book, ''Life as a Loser.'' Put out by Boston-based boutique publisher Arriviste Press, it has sold 1,000 copies since January, mostly through word of mouth and Internet sales.

Call it a testosterone-driven Bridget Jones or call it ''lad lit.'' Whatever the name, a crop of books by men writers is going where no man has gone before and picking up where ''chick lit'' left off. Men are writing fiction about how to win the elusive woman of their dreams and survive their shattered hearts.

''I'm not sure if it's a new trend but it's just a new way to position the books in the marketplace,'' Liate Stehlik, an associate publisher at Pocket Books, says. ''I know that for a while we were getting all these great manuscripts but we didn't know where they would go in terms of the market.''

Pocketbooks plans to release three lad lit books this summer in a ''Boys of Summer'' campaign.

While most publishers have been pushing ''chick lit'' to chronicle the highs and lows of women and romance, men who fumbled in the quest for Ms. Right were busy scribbling away. Just as Nick Hornby had done a decade ago with ''High Fidelity'' and ''About a Boy,'' men writers were quietly documenting their failed and frustrating love lives.

''I thought that women would like to see Bridget Jones on the other side,'' says Kyle Smith, the 32-year-old author of ''Love Monkey,'' a hot new book about a tabloid journalist who collects girlfriends.

''I wanted to show Bridget Jones in his Timberland shoes instead of his sling backs. So he has all the same concerns that she does, except from a different point of view,'' Smith says, as he talks about books and life in his New York apartment. It is a typical bachelor's pad, lined with hundreds of books and just as many CDs, organized according to genre. As he speaks, he scrunches up in an overstuffed leather chair, occasionally tugging at his socks.

''We have the same worries about our waistlines but we also worry about our hairlines.''

The hero of ''Love Monkey,'' Tom, is distracted by many women but is smitten by only one, a 22-year-old nymph named Julia. He wants nothing more than to have her stay with him forever. Julia, however, is torn: There are a few other guys. To alleviate his pangs of longing, Tom pursues a menagerie of ladies, including a German, a focused law student and a good buddy named Bran.

''Love Monkey'' was warmly received by critics. The New York Times said, ''Mr. Smith earns his place with an unstoppable string of glib but hilarious wisecracks.''

Smith says that ''Love Monkey'' wasn't inspired by any one woman or experience, rather a collage of ups and downs.

First-time novelist Scott Mebus, on the other hand, was inspired by a personal incident: He needed to turn a break up into a creative endeavor. Mebus, the 29-year-old author of Miramax Books' ''Booty Nomad,'' split with a girlfriend and needed to write as a sort of catharsis.

He already had written a rock musical called ''Tarnish,'' which ran in the New York Fringe Festival in 2001, and was a producer at MTV, where he worked on such shows as ''Real World.'' He also scored music for various MTV and VH1 programs.

It took eight drafts before his manuscript was ready to be published. ''Booty Nomad'' is the story of a man who dates a lot of women in an attempt to get over the one he refers to only as ''The Eater of Souls.''

''Booty Nomad'' didn't score with critics, though. Publishers Weekly called Mebus' book, ''Yet another hollow Nick Hornby knockoff.''

Smith and Mebus are not sure if their books will appeal more to men or to women, who historically have comprised the majority of fiction buyers. Smith thinks that it is hard to find books, or even movies or music, that appeal equally to both sexes.

''Women tend to respond to it because women are more likely, from what I've noticed, to see their own experiences in my own,'' Leitch said. ''I can stand in for their boyfriend, their brother, their father, or themselves. Men, with exceptions, of course, tend to just see it for a funny story. Or they think I'm just writing to pick up girls. Which is why most men do anything, really.''

''I think if you allow yourself to have a connection to the guy and if you allow yourself to believe that kind of a struggle is valuable, then I think you'd enjoy these sorts of books,'' Mebus says. ''I just think that guys have a hard time allowing themselves to do that.''

When he was writing ''Love Monkey,'' Smith envisioned women reading his book more so than men. After all, the book serves as a sort of portal into the minds of guys.

''I was trying to take chick lit to the next level,'' Smith says. ''I like chick lit. It can be really funny with good insights and great characters. But at some point it falls into a slot: Here's where she meets the hunky guy and you know they're going to get married and they have a little back and forth for a while. I wanted it to be a little less predictable.''

''Love Monkey,'' published by William Morrow, has a respectable 20,000 copies in print. Dan Conaway, Smith's editor at Morrow, said that he isn't sure if the books are a trend.

However, he says that when he acquired ''Love Monkey'' he realized that it might be time for guy lit, since it had been years since Bridget Jones had come out and ''Sex and the City'' was coming to a close.

''I'm not comparing Kyle to Philiip Roth, but there is that funny level to their books as well as a serious level that deals with loneliness and pride,'' Conaway says.

While chick lit often includes amusing anecdotes about shoes and shopping and the caloric value of various foods, lad lit tends to have a lot of male references.

Smith quotes Bob Dylan and Ernest Hemingway at length in ''Love Monkey'' and his main character drinks more than his fair share of Scotch. Leitch, in ''Life as a Loser,'' also deals with the loss of his fiancee with large amounts of alcohol.

Regardless of the self-destructive nature of their broken hearts, Leitch says that whenever he gets feedback for his book, it is mostly from women.

''I think people respond to the honesty,'' he says. ''The fact that there is a book that comes from a very honest place, I think that people respond to that.''

And writing honestly and showing a little emotion doesn't make a guy a wuss, either.

But Leitch thinks that what draws readers to lad lit is the fact that men are writing these books, admitting that they, too, struggle and question when it comes to matters of the heart.

''Like anything that's honest, women are more receptive to it,'' he says. ''Men would rather just be left alone and not think too much about anything. I know how they feel.''

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