Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher, review by Bruce Jacobs
Academia makes an easy target for satire--novelists as different as Kingsley Amis and Richard Russo have taken aim at it. Julie Schumacher (novelist and faculty member in the departments of English and Creative Writing at the University of Minnesota) is the latest "insider" to do so. Cleverly, she has crafted Dear Committee Members as a series of letters of recommendation from curmudgeonly Jason Fitger, tenured professor of Creative Writing and English at the fictional Payne University ("Teach 'til It Hurts"). Amid the defunding of his English department and shrinking remodel of its offices, Fitger's modest academic life is one of divorce, disappointment and disgruntlement. But he takes seriously his responsibility to support his students and agrees to all requests to send letters of recommendation, no matter how far-fetched the employment opportunity. As he says in a letter to the director of a childcare center in regard to one of his former students: "I have penned more than 1,300 letters of recommendation, many of them enthusiastic, some a cry of despair." Fitger's often rambling letters not only display his caustic distaste for university administrative bureaucracy, with its "endless requests for redundant documentation," but also cumulatively paint a picture of a once-optimistic graduate student who has lost his wife, his literary agent and his self-respect.
Fitger's students come in all sizes and interests, and he does his best to find a postgraduate fit for them, even if it has nothing to do with writing--a pursuit at which only a few excel. For one, he gins up something positive, noting that the student "has bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences." Another has the "ability to form coherent sentences not randomly punctuated by 'like' or 'really.' " Fitger even supports one who is applying to medical school, suggesting that perhaps she hopes "to join the ranks of physician-writers who, not content to leave the pursuit of literary success to the starving artist, complement their million-dollar salaries with Random House contracts."
However, Fitger saves his most sincere recommendation letters for Darren Browles, a talented student trying to finish his "powerhouse" novel reinterpreting Melville's Bartleby, the Scrivener. As Darren is rejected for one fellowship or teaching job after another, Fitger steadfastly sends out more letters on the young man's behalf to his erstwhile agent, his own former seminar professor, the university radio station, even an RV park looking for an assistant manager--the death spiral of a writer's Dantean circles of Hell. Gradually, Schumacher peels aside Fitger's tough façade to show a man who still believes in the power of literature and the role of teaching. He is perhaps most genuine in one letter where he describes his student as "not yet a candle ready to illuminate anyone else's darkness, but he understands that darkness exists, and he does not turn away." Can we ask anything more than this from a college education that still holds on to the study of literature and hasn't slipped finally and irrevocably into vocational practicality?
Bruce Jacob's review first appeared in Shelf Awarness on July 28.