Ray Carver, my favorite writer of short fiction, once remarked that he wrote short stories because he could turn them around quickly for sale. Stephen King, the master of the uber-novel (The Stand checks in at over 1,000 pages) echoed that sentiment in On Writing, offering an excellent anecdote on once receiving payment for a short story just in time to buy penicillin for his sick children.
There's a lot to recommend this literary form (Poe was the first champion of the serious study of short fiction, and to my thinking, this qualifies it as a uniquely American art form)--not the least of which is practicality. You can sit at the computer and have a finished narrative (rough form) in a matter of hours. Even shorter if you write flash fiction.
And there are lots of markets out there, making it perhaps the most democratic (term used loosely) literary form in which to work.
So which collections are the best?
Writer of the Purple Rage, by Joe Lansdale
The October Country, by Ray Bradbury
Dark Carnival, Bradbury
Best Sellers Guaranteed, by Lansdale
The Stories of John Cheever, by John Cheever
Stories, by Richard Bausch
Where I'm Calling From, by Ray Carver
What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Carver
Skeleton Crew and Night Shift, by Stephen King
And the gold standard:
Nightmares and Dreamscapes, by Stephen King
I read N&D once or twice a year. I love the tone of the stories. I love the diversity in content. I love the study in size and complexity.
I write about a half-dozen short stories a year, and my output usually corresponds with picking up this collection. I tend to write in the short form in cycles, and despite the fact that I'm cooking along on my work in progress, I'm feeling the need to write another short before Christmas. I've got a dilly of an idea percolating. I'll probably bring my copy of N&D home tonight and read "Rainy Season" and "You Know They Got a Hell of a Band." Those two usually get me in the mood. Maybe I'll save some space for "Crouch End."
Gotta have dessert.
So let me ask you. Which literary works fuel your fire to get to the keyboard?