Dear Committee Members
Upon first blush, Julie Schumacher's novel, DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS, would seem to have a very specialized, even limited, audience. Its author is an English and creative writing professor at the University of Minnesota, and it's firmly set in the world of academia. Certainly readers entrenched in, or at least familiar with, that milieu will find Schumacher's humor and satire most pointed and cringe-worthy. But the truth is that almost everyone, at some point or another, has written a letter of recommendation for an intern or junior colleague, or been forced to ask for a letter of recommendation on one's own behalf. That means that almost everyone will have at least some moment of recognition while reading Schumacher's alternately hilarious, angry and poignant epistolary novel.
"DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS is a satire, it's true, and a very funny one at times. But it should also be recommended as a thoughtful glimpse into the state, and struggles, of academic life today."
Unlike most epistolary novels, this one consists entirely of letters written by a single person to dozens of other people, without a single reply. The letter-writer in question is Jay Fitger, a professor of English and creative writing at fictional Midwestern Payne University. Jay has written hundreds, if not thousands, of letters of recommendation over the course of his career, so it's understandable if he seems a little…testy, especially when confronted by online forms that truncate his sentences or by people who perhaps should have thought twice before requesting a recommendation letter from Jay the day before Thanksgiving: "Ms. Handel is neither my advisee nor my student… Divorced, somewhat recently spurned, and therefore doomed to spend the holiday with two vegetarians from the Classics Department, I was apparently the only living member of the faculty the unfortunate Ms. Handel was able to find."
Unsurprisingly, these seemingly unrelated letters at first can seem choppy or disorienting. But some are minor masterpieces of comic prose in their own right, and others begin to hang together into more comprehensive plots and themes. There's Jay's ongoing frustration over the renovations to the English department building --- renovations that likely will never actually benefit the English department itself. There’s his wry comments on the department's current chairmanship by a member of the sociology faculty. There's the implicit commentary on the incestuousness (or at least insularity) of academic life, as Jay has to curry favor from both his ex-wife and more than one ex-girlfriend, all on the receiving end of letters he pens on behalf of others. Most notable is his championing of a young aspiring novelist, a former graduate student of his, who has had his funding cut off and is seeking any kind of financial support to help him finish his Melville-inspired debut novel. Jay may or may not be identifying a little too closely to this struggling young writer; nevertheless, his tireless attempts on behalf of this protégé reveal his genuine concern for his students amid all his bluster.
At times, Jay's tirades and petty grumblings can grow tiresome, but DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS also has moments of genuine hilarity and moments of authentic insight into the problems plaguing higher education, especially the liberal arts, today. "Payne is rapidly pricing itself into oblivion," writes Jay in a recommendation for a colleague whose struggling department has been eliminated, "not by giving modest raises to nationally respected scholars, but by starving some departments while building heated yoga studios and indoor climbing walls in others. To afford the amenities inextricably tied to their education, students need wealthy financial backers or a mountain of loans --- and so many on- and off-campus jobs they barely have time to go to class."
DEAR COMMITTEE MEMBERS is a satire, it's true, and a very funny one at times. But it should also be recommended as a thoughtful glimpse into the state, and struggles, of academic life today.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on August 22, 2014
Dear Committee Members
- Publication Date: August 19, 2014
- Genres: Fiction
- Hardcover: 192 pages
- Publisher: Doubleday
- ISBN-10: 0385538138
- ISBN-13: 9780385538138