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About the Editor

2014

In October 2013, a scientific study asserting the value of literary fiction was published in Science Express ("Reading Literary Fiction Improves Theory of Mind," by David Comer Kidd and Emanuele Castano). The experiments described in the article showed that reading literary fiction temporarily enhances something known as "Theory of Mind (ToM)," or "understanding others' mental states."

At first glance, literature and science don't seem to have much to contribute to each other: science relies on logic and replication, in contrast to the imagination and uniqueness that are essential to literary fiction.

But the results of the social scientists' experiments won't surprise O. Henry Prize Stories readers. Time is nothing to a reader. Neither is space. We already know that fiction can engage us even with characters we dislike and whose actions we abhor. We know that when we become immersed in another's story, we can set aside our own resistance and defenses. We can bear to relinquish our precious selves and, for an instant, feel the distant, clean emotion of compassion.

It's not surprising that two of these experiments used examples of literary fiction from The O. Henry Prize Stories. Each year, our collection presents twenty opportunities to leave your self behind and know, however briefly, what it is to be someone else in another time and place. We can now join our friends the social scientists and call what we experience "ToM." But whatever science chooses to call it, dedicated readers already know that such knowledge has played a crucial role in our complicated human societies for as long as we have been telling each other stories.

Laura Furman
Austin, Texas
September 2014

(Copyright © 2014 Laura Furman)

Read Laura Furman's introduction to The PEN/O. Henry Prize Stories 2014.

Read previous editor's notes from:
(photo © Ave Bonar)


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Laura Furman was born in New York, and educated in New York City public schools and at Bennington College. Her first story appeared in The New Yorker in 1976, and since then her work has appeared in Yale Review, Southwest Review, Ploughshares, American Scholar, and other magazines. Her books include three collections of short stories, two novels, and a memoir. She's the recipient of fellowships from the New York State Council on the Arts, Dobie Paisano Project, Guggenheim Foundation, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Series Editor of The O. Henry Prize Stories since 2002, she taught for many years at the University of Texas at Austin. Her new collection of stories, The Mother Who Stayed, was published in 2011.