The Truth About Fiction

By April 16, 2015 October 20th, 2018 3 Comments

I watch Mad Men the way I read. I scour Don’s interactions and facial expressions for meaning, trace motifs strung like pearls along episodes, pore over images like prim and proper Betty shooting birds in her backyard.

The theme song repeats in my head long after the show closes, and the graphic of Don falling in perpetuity gets under my skin every time. I want him to stop falling. I don’t care if he lands and lives or crashes and burns. But at the same time, I don’t want the show to end.

Good serial television, like Serial the podcast and 19th century serial novels, casts a spell that is hard to shake. It distracts, delights, disturbs. Last night I didn’t sleep because I couldn’t decide whether or not this season’s new character Diane, a waitress with as angular a face as Don’s and as little compassion, is a figment of Don’s imagination or a reality. Every scene involving her feels like a scene out of The Sixth Sense.

Analyze as I will, I know that there is no right answer. Moreover, I know that it doesn’t actually matter if she exists or not. Don doesn’t exist either.

But we do. When we read fiction in any form, although we can never know things absolutely, we nevertheless experience truths. As Heidi Julavits writes in The Folded Clock, “Readers… experience real feelings as a result of fiction.”



Jessica is a doctoral candidate, education consultant, writer and editor. She is the founder of bookclique, a collaborative of English teachers and students working to promote book culture, and a co-founder of Well-Schooled, the site for educator storytelling, dedicated to sharing first-person educator stories. All Rights Reserved - What I Learned Today in School.


  • Allen says:


    love, Dad

  • Susan says:

    This is my story, too. And, reading this reminded me of when Stephanie Russell came and gave a talk to the fifth graders at Collegiate. They were reading middle school versions of The Iliad and The Odyssey, and she was talking about the poems’ origins, ancient Greek, and more. She looked right at this kid in the front row when she was talking about Achilles, and she said, “Achilles is just as real to me as you are.” This kid, Daniel Ratner, was mesmerized, sitting there, hanging on to her every word. Of course, he went on and took Latin and Greek with her, and I’m sure Achilles is now just as real to him as the people in his life are.

    • says:

      I love thinking about these now mythic figures from our life, Susan — Stephanie Russell will always be a hero, working with the boys on their Greek… beautiful memory!