Michelle Newby is contributing editor at Lone Star Literary Life, reviewer for Foreword Reviews, freelance writer, member of the National Book Critics Circle, and blogger at www.TexasBookLover.com. Her reviews appear or are forthcoming in Pleiades Magazine, Rain Taxi, World Literature Today, South85 Journal, The Review Review, Concho River Review, Monkeybicycle, Mosaic Literary Magazine, Atticus Review, and The Collagist.

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James Magnuson is the director of the Michener Center for Writers and the author of almost a dozen novels—among them Without Barbarians, Ghost Dancing, Windfall, The Hounds of Winter, and  Famous Writers I Have Known—and a dozen plays, which have had production at Playwright’s Horizons, Hudson Guild, and St. Peter’s Gate.  He received the Hodder Fellowship of Princeton University for his plays, a fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts, and an award from the Texas Institute of Letters for his fiction.  His career also includes a stint as a series television writer in Hollywood.

For summer, we'll be reviewing several recent audiobook editions of Texas books. We hope you enjoy your reading—and driving, hiking, exercising, or whatever you're doing while you give these titles a listen!


Magnuson, James

Famous Writers I Have Known: A Novel

Read by Kevin T. Collins

Audible audio edition, 10 hours and 11 minutes, unabridged, $4.99

Also available in hardcover (2014) and paperback (W. W. Norton, 978-0-393-35081-4, 320 pgs. $15.95, January 2015)

Famous Writers I Have Known by James Magnuson, director of the James A. Michener Center for Writers at the University of Texas at Austin, is unequal parts noir, caper, and satirical sendup of creative writing programs and the contemporary literary scene, generally.

Frankie Abandonato is a career grifter in New York forced to flee after his latest con goes murderously awry. The first flight out of La Guardia is to Austin and Frankie takes off. Landing in Austin, he’s mistaken for V. S. Mohle (think J.D. Salinger), a famously reclusive author who has agreed to teach a writing workshop at a prestigious fiction program. Sensing the con of a lifetime, Frankie assumes the mantle of tortured genius and must ultimately confront Mohle’s nemesis, Rex Schoeninger (think James Michener). The two writers haven’t spoken since feuding over a Pulitzer came to blows on The Dick Cavett Show.

Famous Authors I Have Known rollicks with farce, especially when Frankie tries to bluff his way through literature workshops, where he mistakes Jay Gatsby for an author, is baffled by “some Cheever guy,” finds himself on the phone with Günter Grass, and assigns exercises such as “Describe a field as seen by a cow. Do not mention the cow.” Students make earnest declarations: “Realism is the atlas of fiction!”

Magnuson’s dialogue is smart, quick, and often hilarious. Here Frankie and his former partner, who have been in prison for most of the 1990s, discuss a newfangled scam involving African royalty and something called email:

     “If you think I’m going to pose as a Nigerian prince, you’re crazy.”

     “Did I say you were going to have to pose as anybody? That’s the beauty of it. It’s all done on the computer. It’s totally risk-free.”

     “I’m not wearing any goddamned robes.”

This novel is all plot as befits a crime caper. Magnuson is judicious with illustrative detail, not feeling the need to painstakingly draw every brick in the wall when a sketch will do for his purposes. The pace is brisk and even suspenseful as the story approaches its climax, holding attention effortlessly.

Famous Authors I Have Known is read by actor Kevin T. Collins, a veteran of audio narration whose work has won a couple of AudioFile Earphones Awards. Collins’s voice is smooth and his pacing even. Frankie is a combination of cynical world-weariness, perpetual bemusement at the alien literary world he’s landed in, and intermittent existential terror. Collins manages this mixture with aplomb, although a bit more attitude would be appropriate and his choice of where to place the emphasis in any particular phrase seemed off at times. Collins does a satisfying range of voices and accents, managing to make Texans sound like Texans, not caricatures.

Magnuson romps through the novel, lightheartedly skewering literary pretention, joining the perennial debate about what is art and what is popular. Is there more value in a single critically-acclaimed novel, or in a career of prosaic prose that “kept generations of readers reading?” Does it matter?

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