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When Writers Write About Writers

In his new book, James Magnuson, the head of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, skewers (lovingly) the people who attend programs like the one he directs.

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In 1985, when the novelist and playwright James Magnuson first accepted a job teaching creative writing at the University of Texas at Austin, he harbored a fair amount of skepticism toward the academic world. In the past, he had taken what he called “an outsider’s pride” in being able to support himself as a writer without having to teach. He wondered too if both the teachers and the students in creative writing programs were prone to taking themselves too seriously.

Even after being named director of the university’s Michener Center for Writers, in 1994, and helping establish its graduate program as one of the most highly regarded in the country, Magnuson never quite abandoned his skepticism.

“I used to claim with some people coming out of M.F.A. programs, I could tell who their teacher was,” said Magnuson, 72, during an interview earlier this month. “That was me being a wiseguy, but I did feel it, that things get a little shaped by teachers.”

Instead of stewing privately, Magnuson has used those gripes as fuel for a new novel, Famous Writers I Have Known, about a con man named Frankie Abandonato who ends up teaching at a creative writing graduate program in Texas that sounds an awful lot like the Michener Center. Following in the tradition of such academic satires as Moo, by Jane Smiley, and Changing Places, by David Lodge, the novel, which is to be published this week by W.W. Norton and Company, takes particular delight in skewering teachers and students alike. 

“Further biting the hand that has fed him, Mr. Magnuson also introduces a character named Rex Schoeninger, a thinly veiled stand-in for the late novelist James A. Michener, the Michener Center’s benefactor and the man who handpicked Magnuson to run it. But Magnuson’s former students, and fans of Michener who are fearful that this is some sort of vengeful roman à clef, can breathe easy. Magnuson spins his rambunctious tale with such evident glee that the satire never comes off as bitter or cynical.

“Jim is the nicest, sweetest guy in the world, but he has a really sly sense of humor and he misses nothing,” said Anthony Giardina, the novelist and playwright and a former visiting professor at the Michener Center. “Only he could inform you about all the peccadilloes of graduate programs but do it gracefully enough so that he’s going to be able to go on running a graduate program.”

Magnuson began writing Famous Writers I Have Known around 2005, after the publication of his previous novel, The Hounds of Winter. Striking the right tone  took repeated rewrites, he said.

“I’ve always taken a coarse pleasure in movies about impostors like Tootsie or Some Like It Hot or Sister Act.” he said. “This is like Sister Act with writers instead of nuns.”

Magnuson said he had also been drawn to the idea of writing about Michener, who died in 1997, four years after endowing the center with $20 million. Although he won the Pulitzer Prize for his 1947 debut novel, Tales of the South Pacific, and sold tens of millions of copies of his later novels, Michener was never quite taken seriously by literary critics, a point that Magnuson explores in Famous Writers I Have Known. In the novel, the Michener figure is a poignant jumble of contradictions: cantankerous yet generous; lonely yet surrounded by sycophants; fabulously successful yet pining for recognition.

“I remember when he died, and I really did feel that the people who grieved the most were the students,” Magnuson said. “Some part of him knew that he wasn’t literary in the way that these kids wanted to be literary. But among the students there was absolutely no scorn for him.”

These days, Michener’s brand of doorstop-size historical fiction has largely fallen out of commercial favor. On the other hand, the graduate writing program he created and charged Magnuson with running is now often talked about in the same context as the much-longer-established writing programs at the University of Iowa and the University of Michigan.

Among the Michener Center graduates who have turned out best-selling, critically acclaimed recent works are Philipp Meyer (The Son) and Kevin Powers (The Yellow Birds), both novelists, and  Domenica Ruta (With or Without You), a memoirist. According to Kevin Larimer, editor of Poets & Writers, the Michener Center has drawn high rankings in recent years  in all seven of the categories in which that magazine rates MFA programs. (The program was ranked third overall in the 2013 Poets & Writers survey.)

Magnuson deflected credit himself, and instead pointed to a diverse student and faculty body as a primary reason the Michener Center had flourished. His own role, he said, is less that of a teacher than an editor.

“I just get invested in trying to figure out how to make these kids’ books work and save them years of heading in the wrong direction,” he said.

Which isn’t to say that he’ll ever view himself as a true believer in creating writing programs—or that he is going to stop zinging the academy with the occasional affectionate raspberry.

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