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Author mixes fact, fiction and absurdity

By Jeffrey Sartain - Guest Column
Jan. 24, 2017 at 4:27 p.m.

Jeffrey Sartain

Jeffrey Sartain

We at the University of Houston-Victoria and the American Book Review are excited to welcome James Magnuson to launch the Spring 2017 UHV/ABR Reading Series. He will speak at noon Thursday in the UHV University West Alcorn Auditorium, 3007 N. Ben Wilson St. The event is free and open to the public.

Magnuson joins us from Austin, where he teaches creative writing while continuing to write as he has done for more than 50 years. His background - initially in drama - has traversed almost every genre, from essays to screenwriting.

His plays, such as "No Snakes in this Grass," established his reputation in the 1960s. Since then, he has gone on to pen nine novels and various shorter works, including a number of episodes of popular television while he was a Hollywood screenwriter.

In "Famous Writers I Have Known," Magnuson's most recent novel, he offers a satire of writers and the writing life. The institutional target of the satire is the one that Magnuson probably knows best - an exclusive writing center at a university. As the director of the Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin for more than 20 years, Magnuson is intimately familiar with the situations that face the arts in higher education. It is within this setting that Magnuson's con man operates, pretending he is a long underground author of international fame.

Inspired by stories of identity theft in pop culture around him in the news and films, Magnuson imagined a not-so-fantastical scenario where a reclusive author, like Thomas Pynchon or J.D. Salinger, is impersonated by a con man and infiltrates an exclusive university setting. Retold by the con man, the layering of fact, fiction and absurdity is a heady mix.

The book is in part based on Magnuson's own experience with authors over his years as a writer and writing center director. The novel is an important entry in contemporary literature. Its muddling of the fact-fiction divide, as well as its tongue-in-cheek moments involving Magnuson himself, fit it alongside great contemporary satires, such as Joseph Heller's "Catch-22" or Vladimir Nabokov's "Pale Fire."

Magnuson's satire of American arts and higher education runs deep, but it is not cynical. The interest in literature from the students, faculty and public that allow the novel's con man to ply his dishonest trade demonstrates an unflagging sense of the importance of American writers and writing. Magnuson's book is one that represents the vitality of American literature, not its demise.

There is a literary revolution in full swing in Texas, and Magnuson and the Michener Center have been a part of that literary turn for more than two decades. Across the state, literature is celebrated in a wide variety of forms, from the appointment of established talents at huge, flagship universities to the amazing projects at a smaller campus like UHV, which hosts more literary endeavors than I can list here. Innumerable efforts like these across the state and nation demonstrate the vitality and diversity of American literature by promoting the works of new and established authors to an eager public.

Jeffrey Sartain is the managing editor of the American Book Review and an assistant professor of English at the University of Houston-Victoria. He may be emailed at sartainj@uhv.edu.


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