Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher
2014 by Soho Press, 2015 (pb) by Anchor Books 181 pages
(I purchased this copy Friday night)
Dear Book Review Reader,
That's right--I'm going to review an epistolary novel by writing a letter, though it's going to come off as a poor decision as in no way, shape, or form will this letter nearly be as well written, as funny, nor as necessary as the 67 letters written by Jason T. Fitger, Professor of Creative Writing and English, of the Department of English at Payne University, the protagonist of Julie Schumacher's fantastic novel, Dear Committee Members.
Fitger's letters are the letters you write in your head any time somebody asks you something you consider inane. The letters you wish you could actually pen/type and send before you acquiesce to proper standards and simply give the information you know the requester wants to read. A quick excerpt from his second letter, one to Theodore Boti, the new Chair of the Department of English:
...god knows what enticements were employed during the heat of summer to persuade you--a sociologist!--to accept the position of chair in a department not your own, an academic unit whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party: No raises or research funds for you, you ungovernable rascals! And no fudge before dinner!
Or after writing an extremely disparaging letter to the Associate Vice Provost regarding his support of a colleague from the Slavic Languages Department, he signs off:
Irritated and restless, but not as fractious as I can be,
Of the 67 letters of recommendation penned by Fitger, 33, or just under half, are job related. Where one might expect a Professor of Creative Writing to be asked for LORs from students trying to get into MFA programs, or Residencies (and there are some of those), recipients of Fitger's letters include a catering service, a daycare, Avenger's Paintball, and Flanders Nut House to name but a few. Fitger writes letters on behalf of 42 different people (this takes place over the course of a year), with 7 individuals receiving multiple letters on their behalf, with what appears to be his last Graduate Student, Darren Browles, turning into a personal project and seeing 11 letters written from looking for a residency, a fellowship, an agent, various jobs and eventually, sadly, to set up a scholarship in Browles names after Darren passes away.
Fitger's usage of humor, bitterness, and anger throughout his letters of recommendation might hide his very well-intentioned heart in the hands of a lesser writer, but Schumacher has really written a stellar novel here. Instead of simply penning a funny (and it is extremely funny--I received more than an odd look or two for laughing out loud while reading straight through after picking it up to look at a letter or two) novel, she has taken on various aspects of the world that need fingers pointed at them and done just that.
For instance, 27 of the letters Fitger writes are to members of Payne University ranging from ridiculously mundane to things that one has a hard time believing need to be written. A constant note, especially early in the letters, when writing these inter-University notes was that were the amount of time spent on these by the faculty, be spent on research and writing instead, perhaps they could elevate themselves from a Tier-II status. Schumacher also allows Fitger to be her mouthpiece on the current way that universities are being developed--the downsizing or ostracizing of departments (like English or the Slavic Languages) and moving their funding to departments whose alumni are more likely able to make large donations (the Economics Department especially has heaps of love piled upon it at Payne University):
A note here--excuse the indecency--on the men's room in Willard: a subtle but incessant dripping from a pipe in the ceiling (perhaps from the Jacuzzi or bidet being installed for our Economics colleagues) is gradually transforming this previously charming depot into a fetid cavern. The tile floor is often slick with liquids and, because desperate citizens have propped the door open, odors now regularly waft out into the hall. I might as well set my desk next to the urinals.
And I think, dear reader, that there is also some very subtle commentary here on Ms. Schumacher's part, in her choice of her letter writer. Jason T. Fitger is a 52 year old male with tenure. I don't think there is any doubt that Schumacher had the protagonist be a male, nor a middle-aged one at that, as an accident. Today, only a couple of years since Dear Committee Members was published, we can still see the difference between how a blunt, straight speaking woman--let's say Hillary Clinton, is reacted to in comparison to a similarly blunt, and unfortunately, probably straight speaking man--let's use Donald Trump as an example. One is considered by many to be an unlikable bitch. The other is viewed by many as a straight shooter, just saying what nobody has the courage to say.
This is not at all to compare Jason T. Fitger to Donald Trump. Fitger isn't perfect by any means--he mined his personal life for a couple of his novels, destroying his marriage and his follow-up relationship in doing so. He also shows some misogynistic traits in his letters regarding a female student of his, Vivienne Zelles, referring to her writing as "not very interesting," and "quiet (ie, dull)" in various letters as compared to the wild praise he gives to the writing of Darren Browles throughout the book. However, his straight-shooting letter writing is almost always done with others in mind and not self-serving. Beyond that, there seems to be a slight uptick in his personal character between letter 1 and letter 67. Schumacher has allowed him to develop and change, albeit slightly, in his middle age.
Well Reader of Book Reviews, I could continue talking about Dear Committee Members for about as long as you'd be willing to listen, but I'm guessing somewhere just north of 1000 words is probably your limit. So instead, I simply very highly suggest you track down a copy of this fantastic novel and give it a read yourself.
Daniel E Wickett