James Magnuson Pulls Back the MFA Curtain

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famouswritersThe Washington Post dubbed James Magnuson’s new novel “a triumphantly preposterous fish-out-of-water campus caper,” and Famous Writers I Have Known has garnered an abundance of similar kudos. The book’s been called a satire, a romp, a farce, and a gleeful jab at the world of MFA writing programs—one that Magnuson, director of UT’s prestigious Michener Center for Writers, is well positioned to write. Magnuson will read selections from Famous Writers I Have Known at the Bullock Texas State History Museum at 7 p.m. on Jan. 21 as part of the museum’s Texas Artists Series.

The book opens on con man Frankie Abandonato and follows his exploits as he poses as reclusive Salinger-esque author V.S. Mohle in order to weasel his way into elderly MFA program benefactor Rex Schoeninger’s bank account. The MFA program in question is fictional, but it resembles the Michener Center in more ways than one; likewise, Schoeninger can be read as both a parody of and tribute to the late James Michener. Frankie’s scheme is destined to fail, but not before Magnuson pokes a semester’s worth of fun at the writers and academics his con man encounters.

Magnuson’s story is lighthearted and playful, while still shedding a gently critical light on the eccentricities and absurdities of graduate writing education. But Abandonato’s deft infiltration of the literary world raises a question not easily glossed over: Are writers and con men really so different? Both rely on a certain amount of theatricality; both are actors playing a role; both tend to make it up as they go along. Frankie may not be V. S. Mohle, but he’s a phenomenal storyteller regardless. As is Magnuson.

His will be the second performance of the Bullock Museum’s Texas Artists Series, a program that aims to connect Texas history with live performances showcasing the music, theater, and literature that bring the stories of Texas to life. Magnuson’s reading promises a whimsical portrait of a program few have the good fortune to get into, and an artful reminder that nothing—authors included—should be taken too seriously.