True Story

"One Kiss and I Forgot I Was His Mother-in-law!"

That was the title of my favorite story published in True Story when (full disclosure) I worked there as an editor some years ago. The "true story" had a few hot love scenes, as rendered by the immortal--was it Ruby Jean Jensen, my favorite writer there?

You may not be familiar with Ruby's oeuvre--or with the pub at all. After all, True Story's demographic is white, blue-collar women.

The "true confessions"-type story, which has evolved from a slightly racy sin-suffer-and-repent formula into a let-me-tell-you-about-my-relationship-problem narrative, may seem outdated and tame in an age of Internet porn and celebrity tell-all magazines. Yet True Story, the oldest of its class, has survived some 86 years. Its publisher, Dorchester Media, also puts out True Confessions, True Love, True Romance and True Experience.

That's an awful lot of "truth" for a category that has, ironically, become today's largest magazine market for women's fiction.

In keeping with the convention of the "true" genre, the stories in the January issue of True Story have no bylines and are illustrated by photos of models posed in very specific situations. For example, the layout for "New Year--New Marriage: We've Added Spice to Stay Together" shows a man and a woman in a giant bathtub. Oddly, their respective positions--he mooning at her, and she staring smilingly at the camera--makes it look like their recipe for sexual fireworks includes welcoming a third party into their bed--er, their bathtub. (This intriguing plot twist is not, however, in the story itself .) The letters to the editor column, with many missives from readers writing directly to characters in previous stories, also furthers the illusion that these tales are more than fictional soap operas--they're a kind of reality series in print.

Intense reader involvement is likewise fanned by five columns that promise payment ($10 and $50 for most; "Reader of the Month" gets $500) for reader stories and pictures on various topics--from "Let Me Tell You About My Pet!" to the newest column, "My Hero" which, happily, gives working-class women a chance (rare in today's media) to gush about their soldier boys. Editor in chief Alison Way, though, seems a little too close to her readership. Among her New Year's resolutions, she writes in her editor's note, are to "meet the love of my life and "get out of debt." Can't imagine Anna Wintour sharing such details in the pages of Vogue.

And what of the true stories themselves? The plots are often predictable--of course, the bad-boy biker comes back to wed the teenage girl he got pregnant, in the story "Even In January--I'll Never Forget My Lost Summer Love." The writing is often clichéd and sentimental; even the steamy moments read like bad romance novels: "Brody took me there, standing in the kitchen. I surrendered myself to my husband and our bodies merged into one." And yet, there are a few fresher stories. "Our Kids Are Dating--And So Are We!" explores the travails of a blended family through snappy dialogue, a sense of humor, and a realistic tone about dealing with adolescents.

Stories like "Kids" saved me from career despair when I first started working at True Story, three years from my time as an English major reading Chaucer and Jane Austen. I expected to be bored and irritated by every story that came my way. Yet, as I discovered, a good confession does require a certain level of of literary skill--I rejected the majority of confessor wannabees from the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts. And, then as now, I found myself caught up in the stories more and more, predictable and trashy as they often were.

Back then, I started to think a lot about the strong power and pull of fiction and narrative. The unheralded survival of the "trues" is testament to that pull. It's been said that nobody reads fiction today, and yet, here is this group of readers still sitting by the proverbial fire, waiting to see what happens next.

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