No 442 Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Dear Committee Members contains two of my favourite literary tropes, mixing a hint of the campus novel with an epistolary structure.

The novel is a hilarious mix of irascibility, disillusionment, and frustration, narrated in the form of a years worth of letters of recommendation from one Jason Fitger, a harried professor of creative writing and literature at the appropriately named Payne University.

Jason Fitger, was once a promising novelist, a member of a prestigious writing group called ‘The Seminar’ but his career has come to a stand still, as has his marriage, which he used for material in his books once to often. The English department where he teaches has been trimmed to the bone, with dwindling numbers of students and professors and ongoing building work on the swanky Economics Department upstairs making conditions unbearable. As Fitger discloses in a rant within one of his recommendation letters, his own musty office is situated “conveniently adjacent to [the men’s room], so that my writing and research are invariably conducted to the flushing of waste.”

Almost all of Fitger’s time it seems, is spent writing letters of recommendation for junior colleagues, underwhelming students and even former wives and lovers. In the absence of time to do any of his own writing, Fiter has become a virtuoso of the form, pouring all of his resentment, frustration and remaining creativity into the letters which are requested of him daily.

I have known Ms. DeRueda for eleven minutes, ten of which were spent in a fruitless attempt to explain to her that I write letters of recommendation only for students who have signed up for and completed one of my classes.

Schumacher has a keen ear for the self-pitying rhetoric of the failed novelist and under-appreciated professor, who feels like not only has his genius not been recognised but that his entire field is being disparaged. Fitger is unable to hide his resentment as he churns out letter after letter recommending literature students to entry-level management positions in the service industry.

You are probably aware of my e-mail fiasco at the end of last summer, my “reply to all” message disclosing to every member of the faculty, staff, and administration my desire to rekindle a relationship with my ex-wife Janet Matthias…I am increasingly prone to mistakes of this sort, perhaps because of the ticker tape of LORs that travels ceaselessly through my pen. Please admit this woman into your program. Please give this unsocialized person some funding. Please offer this mediocre student a chance to improve his condition. Pleasepleasepleaseplease.

It is a format that could easily have become tiresome, but Schumacher deftly avoids the pitfalls that her structure might have posed. Instead, the more unhinged and unprofessional Fitger’s letters become, the more he reveals about himself, his background and his relationship and the more affecting the novel becomes.

Her structure might not change, but Fitger does, and Schumacher manipulates her format into an authentic and affecting character study as Fitger reveals himself to be a man with a very big heart, who has been battered down by circumstance. Schumacher is skilled at tone and voice and is never anything other than empathetic towards her creation. Fitger continuously writes letters on behalf of a troubled protégé, whom he is convinced has great literary talent and also tries to provide opportunities for an old burnt-out friend. Fitger isn’t just an old curmudgeon, he is a tired man who is living a life that hasn’t measured up to its early promise. As he writes to his ex-wife,

I tell you Janet, I am becoming soft and sentimental, I spend more time thinking back to the group of us hungering around HRH and the Seminar table: our yearning kept us alive and enriched us. And now that our bowls have been filled and we’ve been sent off with our dollops of gruel – what enriches us now?

Like the best works of farce, Dear Committee Members marries comedy and social criticism to great effect. It won the Thurber Prize for Comic Writing (Schumacher being the first woman to do so) and is at times, laugh-out-loud funny. Fitger describes his students who ‘dress as if each day required their presence at an Irish wake’ and recommends a young man for a position on the grounds that ‘he’s not unsightly; and he doesn’t appear to be addicted to illegal substances prior to 3:00 p.m.’ but the humour is just one facet of a deeper story. Schumacher subtly explores the loss of hope as one gets older and sees dreams drift out of view, and, more importantly, how the currency of the arts in society today is dwindling to our detrimental effect.

I hope you will not consign her to a windowless environment populated entirely by unsocialized clones who long ago abandoned the reading and discussion of literature in favor of creating ever more restrictive and meaningless ways in which humans are intended to make themselves known to one another.  

Consider this my letter of recommendation. Dear Committee Members is a short, sharp and hilarious book which should definitely be given a spot on your reading pile.


The 746

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

15 Comments Leave a comment

  1. Oh this was such a fun book! It helps that I will read most any campus novel or epistolary novel that comes my way, but it combined the two delightfully. My husband has to write the occasional recommendation letter for a student, so I made him read it and he found it amusing, too. (Alas, there is a sequel that came out a few years ago but it was no good and I DNFed it.)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. This sounds like a lot of fun! A couple of days ago I received a reference request for a student who has only attended two of my sessions over the past eighteen months, and one of those extremely hungover. So the quote included at the top made me laugh out loud!


  3. Our school librarian recently gave me a children’s book about a young refugee boy to review for parents and I complained to her that I could never for a minute shake off the feeling that it was written by a middle aged, middle class white woman. Whereas the tone of this was perfect and straight out of the mouth (pen) of a socially inept, frustrated college professor. I would have been more enamoured if there had been a few more continuous stories in it, but I did enjoy the portraits of the relationships that there were.

    Liked by 1 person

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