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The Abridged Story of Me: The Evolution of Litfic

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Our tale of teacup tragedies begins on a heath in England ...

1847

Emily gave us the gothic bodice ripper; Charlotte the romance-cum-bildungsroman. But the long-neglected Anne may have been the most prophetic Bronte. Her transparently autobiographical tale of a whining governess, Agnes Grey, quietly presages the self-obsessed fiction of the future—such tough mutton, and I was forced to ride backward in the carriage!

1847-1947

Good books are published: Hard Times, Les Miserables, Diary of a Chambermaid, The Great Gatsby, The Sun Also Rises, Tropic of Capricorn, Sons and Lovers, Crime and Punishment, The Golden Bowl, The House of Mirth, The Time Machine, Huckleberry Finn, Journey to the End of the Night, The Grapes of Wrath, Point Counterpoint, Death in Venice, Ulysses, The Master and Margarita, Brideshead Revisited, Kim, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, The Picture of Dorian Gray, To the Lighthouse, Remembrance of Things Past, Moby-Dick.

1947

Quonset huts house the fledgling writers' workshop at the University of Iowa, one of two such programs in the U.S. In classes, the talented and empathetic 22-year-old Flannery O'Connor famously balks at giving her peers feedback. The exception on record: "I'd say the description of the crocodile in there was real good."

1954

Simone de Beauvoir writes an entertaining roman a clef of doomed love affairs and life in Paris. The Mandarins is shamelessly ripped off for the next 50 years.

1957

On the Road, Jack Kerouac's thinly veiled character study of his friend Neal Cassady, makes him a star; success drives him (a) to drink and (b) back to his mother.

1960

With Rabbit, Run, soon-to-be workshop-reading-list staple John Updike single-handedly creates his own subgenre of midlife-crisis litfic.

1973

Rita Mae Brown makes lesbianism boring; Erica Jong makes heterosexuality boring.

1975

Raymond Carver and Chuck Kinder meet at Stanford writing program.

1977

Kinder starts work on a novel inspired by his friendship with Carver.

1981

Carver publishes What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, masters the art of strategic redundancy.

1987

Writing workshops proliferate; the prototype counters with the first edition of the magisterial Iowa Writers' Workshop Cookbook—not an anthology but a collection of recipes contributed by famous alums.

1988

Out of the Quonsets and into the bars: Michael J. Fox plays the lead in the movie of Jay McInerney's workshop-milled 1987 blockbuster, Bright Lights, Big City; majoring in creative writing suddenly the next best thing to being a child star.

1991

Bret Easton Ellis tries to move beyond fictionalized autobiography by making the protagonist of American Psycho a misogynist serial killer; gets dumped by Simon and Schuster.

1992

Douglas Coupland publishes Generation X; Smurfs join Greeks in pantheon of literary allusions. Bennington grad Donna Tartt glamorizes the intellectual heavy lifting and hedonistic excesses of a clique of upper-class students at an eccentric New England liberal arts college in The Secret History; prepublication bidding war and subsequent hype land Tartt, 28, in Vanity Fair, M, Esquire, Vogue, Elle, and Mirabella.

1994

Darcy Steinke's Suicide Blonde puts self-conscious female sexual masochism on litfic map—70 years after Anais Nin did. Rick Moody's The Ice Storm sets new standard for depiction of middle-class family dysfunction.

1995

Michael Chabon publishes Wonder Boys, inspired by the legendary inability of Chuck Kinder to bring 3,000-page manuscript about friendship with Raymond Carver to conclusion.

1997

Moody and Steinke team up to edit Joyful Noise: The New Testament Revisited, fail to convince public they are deep. But The Ice Storm gets made into a movie starring Christina Ricci.

2001

Dave Eggers's A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is displayed prominently at O'Hare newsstands. Chuck Kinder finally publishes the Carver chronicle as Honeymooners after cutting 2,100 pages at point of gun held by Farrar, Straus and Giroux editor. Franzen. The Corrections. Oprah.

2002

There are 857 writers' workshops in the United States. Iowa grads Erin Ergenbright and Thisbe Nissen (author of heavily blurbed debut novel The Good People of New York) release The Ex-Boyfriend Cookbook, taking the Iowa shibboleth "there's always the cookbook" to its logical extreme.

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