I LOVE short fiction. I love that I can buy collections cheaply on the Kindle, which has re-ignited interest in the short form in the general public. But I can instantly tell when I'm reading the short fiction of a writer who doesn't read it.
If you don't read current short fiction, you don't write good short fiction. I guaran-fucking-tee it. So don't write short fiction if you don't read it. You'll either write a mini-novel, which will be unsatisfying as every aspect will be truncated, or you will write for a BIGREVEALOMGOMG. The entire purpose of the big reveal story is the final paragraph. So if I guess the big reveal beforehand, and I will, there's no point in reading the story. And even if I don't guess it, why shouldn't I just read the final paragraph? I'm not saying I never write one, but I shouldn't, and I don't do it much anymore. Getting the context out of the way, letting the reader accept it, and then telling the real story that that crazy context sets up is one of the correct ways to write a concept story. In the amazing "The Hortlak," Kelly Link lays out the zombie sitch in the first page. In the equally amazing "The Cavemen in the Hedges," Stacey Richter's first line is "There are cavemen in the hedges again." She doesn't spend the story giving us increasing hints about what might be in the hedges. First line. Cavemen. Now she can get on with the story. I don't mind a mid-story reveal, either.
I'm getting off track.
Like poetry, short fiction is a conversation with other artists. You need to read good short fiction to be able to write passable short fiction. So yeah, read the classics, read Joyce and Carver and O'Connor and Chekov. Duh. But read contemporary stuff. Or just write novels. You read novels and understand how they work.
So here are my favorite contemporary short fiction writers. The first two are tops, the rest in no particular order.
Dan Chaon - Among the Missing will make you question yourself as a writer. It's that good. Dan Chaon's words weave a dream-like magic that distracts you as he rips your heart out of your chest. And he's a crazy cool guy. His latest novel, which I haven't gotten to yet, is a thriller called Await Your Reply.
Thomas Ligotti - The most important short horror writer alive. Probably the best short horror writer ever. Yes, Poe and Lovecraft are both more important. But Ligotti is better, though he might not be blazing the trails they did. And he's still alive. I don't ever feel that I can predict who history will remember, but it should remember Ligotti.
Stacey Richter - Twin Studies is so good it hurts.
Lorrie Moore - Okay, everyone likes her, and they should. Yes, she unleashed the second-person imperative story on us in the 80s, but she did it first and did it right. And she gets you laughing as she breaks your heart.
Alicia Erian - The Brutal Language of Love is aptly titled. She straddles the same line Chuck Palahniuk does between shock and story, and I think she does so brilliantly, bringing more of the real world into it.
Chris Offutt - Okay, again, everyone likes him. I'm giving you some writers who are a bit unknown and some who are well-known. If you're interested in writing fiction that's authentic in its regional flavor, you need to read him.
Jim Shephard - Check out Love and Hydrogen for a bunch of his best work. Great speculative and realistic stuff. He writes literary stories, but isn't afraid to have things happen (Goddamn do I hate New Yorker realism).
Donald Pollock - Another great regional guy and an up-and-comer for sure. Check out his book Knockemstiff set in Knockemstiff, OH (Yes, that was a real town where he was raised that has recently been ghosted). Smart stories in which crazy shit happens. Did I mention how much I hate New Yorker realism?