Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members—an epistolary novel comprised of letters of recommendation—has an unusual form but is notable for much more. Through these letters from Jay Fitger, an over-the-hill novelist and English professor at a second-rate university, Schumacher voices frustrations at the travails of the humanities on campuses across the nation.
These letters are sarcastic and cynical, and for good reason. Fitger is fed up with watching the English department go unfunded as it breathes the dust of the economics department’s renovations; fed up with the practice of hiring adjunct professors so as to “[bypass] the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live;” fed up with his students, their debt and poor job prospects after graduation, and, of course, his need to write them letters of recommendation.
He often denigrates the person being “recommended” or the institution addressed. His restrained praise for students reveals his low expectations of them: “a ten-minute conversation with the subject reveals that he has bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences.”
When Fitger expresses frustration with his students, I couldn’t tell if Schumacher is mocking sentiments about “kids these days” or channeling them. Fitger is aghast at his students’ laxness toward plagiarism, the garish and often gratuitously violent nature of their fiction, and how “the up-and-coming generation” can post prolifically on social media but “are incapable of returning a simple phone call.”
Wait a minute, I wanted to say, there are those of us under forty who know how to put together grammatically correct sentences, return phone calls, and can write things other than indulgent autobiography or pulpy science fiction. This isn’t a criticism of the novel, only a reflection on it. Dear Committee Members would be no less funny or insightful if it were curmudgeonly as well. Additionally, Fitger’s letters on behalf of one of his students, the struggling author of a modern take on Melville, show that he hasn’t completely given up on “the up-and-coming generation.”
Fitger is cynical about many institutions, but he’s a sincere proponent of the humanities, rebuking those who’d like to see them streamlined and quantified. “Call me a Luddite,” he writes in response to a recommendation form that doesn’t fit a full paragraph, “but I intend to resist for as long as possible the use of robotic fill-in-the-blank qualifiers for the intellectual attributes of human beings.”
At the end, this novel—which until now has been clever, funny, and bitter—becomes moving as well. There’s hope in Fitger’s last letter. It’s not the ham-handed hope of monologue or exposition, the type shown when a character in a sentimental novel looks to the horizon and drops an aphorism. Rather, it’s hope demonstrated through action. We see that, despite his cynicism, Fitger is willing to work to sustain the English department.
Fitger can be a role model to those of us who work in the humanities. Like him, we should persist in the face of low pay and low esteem, and, when it seems hopeless, blow off steam through scathing comic prose.
–Published August 19th by Doubleday