At some point, every professor will have to write a letter of recommendation (LOR) for a student or a colleague. When it comes to letter writing, the problem can be either that the person requesting a letter has little going for him or her, or the person writing the letter cares too little about person requesting the favor.
In Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members: A Novel, the plot hinges on the latter. An epistolary novel, it tells the story of a pessimistic professor of creative writing, Jason Fitger, who is repeatedly set upon to write letters of recommendation for students and colleagues.
At this point in his career, he has become a prolific referee. One gets the impression that he does it not so much because he believes in the value of every person who requests a letter, but because it is the last bit of power he has left. It also provides him a chance to complain, chide, insult, and exact revenge. Each letter with its asides and P.S.s open a window into his life and the lives of those important to him, making the epistolary form of story telling effective.
Fitger, a truly unreliable narrator, is a brutal referee. His every word is infused with his jaded spirit.
“Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move to Lattimore, wherever that is. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.”
Payne University, his unremarkable Midwestern institution, makes deep cuts to his department at the direction of an administration more eager to remodel and fund the Economics Department, which is on the floor above Fitger’s in Willard Hall. He treats every improvement for the Econ department as yet another nail in his academic coffin.
“I’m sure you read the campus newspaper’s article about our venerable colleagues in the Economics Department? Not only do their salaries make ours look like an eleven-year old’s allowance; they will now be able to offer funding to every student admitted to the econ major. An idea here: Ted: Why don’t you inquire in the dean’s office if—once they close our department down for good—we might be rehired to clean, perhaps with cotton swabs dipped in olive oil, the gold leaf surely to be installed in the brand-new fiefdom on the Econ floor?”
“A note here—excuse the indelicacy—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.”
Fitger’s jealousy may only be outpaced by his feelings of being an antique. When he is forced to write LORs online using a form and a system of rating candidates, he scoffs at the inadequacy of such quantifying tools. The reality is that he does not use them well and they rarely give him enough space to complain. His rejection of forms, however, is not entirely without cause; it derives from a “reply all” scandal instigated by Fitger—yes, the kind commonly occurring in university mail systems where someone replies to “all,” sometimes passing on sensitive information meant for only one individual. This left a bitter taste in his mouth for technology and ended an affair.
“P.S. Thank you for not requiring that recommenders submit their letters via an online form. Though technically capable of e-mail, I remain leery, given the fiasco of my “reply all” message in August….Call me a luddite, but I intend to resist for as long as possible the use of robotic fill-in-the-blank quantifiers for the intellectual attributes of human beings.”
Throughout it all, even when Fitger tries to help, he never seems to out-maneuver his propensity for sabotaging everyone in his life. With every letter we discover that he is a bitter man, whose hopes for a praised writing career—having begun his work at “the seminar,” which immediately reminds anyone of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop—led him to his uninspiring department housing and its ever-diminishing MFA program.
“The front and back doors of our building,” he complains, “are blocked—sealed and crisscrossed with yellow tape as if to indicate a crime scene—so you must enter through the basement.”
Fitger’s prized graduate student, Darren Browles, struggles to find an editor who is interested in his novel (a retelling of Melville’s Bartleby). He tirelessly writes LORs for Browles, only to watch his student fall into a downard spiral. All the while, Fitger reluctantly recommends Vivian Zelles, an “indefatigable” graduate student who, despite Fitger’s reserved recommendations, nevertheless manages to excel at everything she does. Herein is a student he could take pride in, but his every word drips with resentment.
In writing one of Zelles LORs to a law school admissions comittee, for example, he undercuts everything she sets out to do. “Her work is meticulous but not very interesting,” he writes. “Moment of truth: personally, I don’t care for Ms. Zelles, who may be ideally suited to law school. She is obviously brilliant, but I find her off-putting and a bit of a cipher.”
Fitger’s irritation at Zelles mirrors his relationships with all women in his life, including an ex-wife/colleague. As he sees it, women are consonant antagonists who relish in obstructing his success. The reality is that the festering wounds prodding Fitger’s ire are those of his own making. His self-centered and damaged ego plays out in passive-aggressive jostling and biting wit that is both entertaining and tragic.
While Fitger’s hole is one of his own digging, I continued to hope for some form of redemption. Can the leopard change his spots? As it turns out, maybe a few. For example, he sets out to do everything in his power to help a friend whose gifted writing career ended when life took a tragic turn.
The curmudgeonly colleague who complains and refused to embrace change. School politics that marginalize departments to near oblivion. Damaged student aspirations. Dear Committee Members tells a story that’s only possible because the painful reality of academic life is not always that different. And herein is the brilliance of Schumacher’s book: the malcontent Fitger is a catharsis. He skewers the ridiculous and calls bullshit, and makes this great novel an hilarious read.