A Hilarious Novel Written in the Form of Academic Letters of Recommendation 

Reading between the lines.
Aug. 5 2014 10:59 AM

Strongest Possible Endorsement

A funny and lacerating novel of academia written in the form of letters of recommendation. 

Illustration.

Illustration by Sam Alden.

Esteemed Members of the Book-Buying Public,

I have been tasked with assessing Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, an epistolary novel consisting entirely of fictionalized letters of recommendation penned by professor Jason Fitger (failed novelist, failed husband, successful misanthrope). Although professor Fitger is—despite his correct opinions on the current state of the academic professions, and rare mitzvahs for his few remaining friends—an abhorrent human being, I cannot help but give this year in his life—which is narrated solely through his self-centered, off-topic, usually-counterproductive “endorsements” of colleagues, students, and friends—my strongest possible recommendation.

Rebecca Schuman Rebecca Schuman

Rebecca Schuman is an education columnist for Slate.

Indeed, like his innumerable crotchety-white-male-academic protagonist predecessors (some of my favorites: Nabokov’s Humbert, Goethe’s Faust, Chabon’s Grady, Franzen’s Chip), Jason Fitger makes up in self-importance what he lacks in human contact with anyone who can stand him. “I’ll get around to my evaluation of Professor Ali,” Fitger explains in an alleged letter of support for a colleague’s tenure case. “But I have a few other things on my mind also, and it would be foolish of me, I think—it would be remiss—if I didn’t take this opportunity to address a few of them. After all, how often does a lowly professor of creative writing and English have the ear” of the associate vice provost? He then unleashes a tirade of grievances about the decrepit facilities and lackluster funding of his department, touching only briefly on his colleague’s many accomplishments.

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To be sure, the “faceless gremlins” in the administration at the aptly named Payne University have, it seems, “condemned” the literature programs to “indigence and ruin”—but with champions of the Life of the Mind like Jason Fitger, who needs detractors? The initial 50 pages I spent in his fetid office (contaminated, as it is, by the malfunctioning men’s room next door) made me wonder if his august institution didn’t perhaps have the right idea about dismantling his irreparably dysfunctional English department, “an academic unit,” he explains, “whose reputation for eccentricity and discord has inspired the upper echelon to punish us by withholding favors as if from a six-year-old at a birthday party.”

The department’s skirmishes—including an hours-long meeting about the punctuation of the mission statement that ends in tears and rehab—are only slightly exaggerated depictions of the actual inner workings of American academe. “I’ve been keeping a log,” Fitger writes to his department’s interim chair (an outside professor from sociology), “of department meetings ranked according to the level of trauma, with a 1 indicating mild contentiousness, a 3 signifying uncontrolled shouting, and a 5 leading to at least one nervous breakdown and/or immediate referral to the crisis center run by the Office of Mental Health.”

By the time Fitger sends his fourth (and increasingly desperate) letter on behalf of his troubled protégé, Darren Browles (author of a “tender” yet “blistering” reimagining of Bartleby set in a Nevada brothel), the reader will almost certainly sympathize not only with Fitger’s long-suffering exes Janet and Carole, but with the administrators keen on “accidentally” poisoning the entire English department to death by making them work in a collapsing and toxic construction site (half of their building is undergoing a luxurious remodel for the Econ department).

JulieSchumacher.
Julie Schumacher.

Photo by Catherine Smith

The first reason to loathe Fitger is that—in Schumacher’s clever skewering of a certain kind of academic male stereotype—he is a passive-aggressive sexist: His female colleague Donna Lovejoy is a “poor overworked creature;” his recommendations for his more ambitious female students drip with disapproval. And much of the novel is driven by his resentment of the success of Vivian Zelles, a female graduate student, and of Elenor Acton, a onetime love interest during “the Seminar”—his alma mater, an Iowa-style MFA program whose events (and people) he exploited for his single successful novel, Stain, and from whose influence he is never able to extricate himself. (Also, there is the small matter of him outright stalking Carole, a matter readers with experience as a stalkee may believe is not handled with quite enough sensitivity.)

But Fitger’s awful qualities do not end with his ineptitude with—and jealousy of—women. What is most infuriating about him is that yes, it is troublesome to spend one’s career doing little other than compose upward of 1,300 letters of recommendation (“I fill my departmental hours casting words of praise into the bureaucratic abyss”). And yes, his life is miserable—his colleagues hate him (and vice versa, although if you had a hallmate who relieved himself into wine bottles, you might not get along either); his ex-wife barely tolerates him; his office is uninhabitable; his MFA program is dying; his most promising student is destitute.

Dear Committee Members.

But no amount of personal strife excuses the laugh-out-loud lengths to which he goes to sabotage the subjects of nearly every letter he writes, in prose whose flights of baroque loathing solve the mystery of where, exactly, his creative energy has gone in recent years (rather than, say, into his trickle of bad novels). To wit: “I recommend him to you on the condition that you not allow him to consume any foodstuffs produced by your business,” Fitger writes on behalf of a student applying to a catering company; for another student, aiming for a job at a tech firm, Fitger writes, “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.”  

But about halfway through Fitger’s year, something changes in the novel. And it’s not that the letter-of-recommendation format grows old—on the contrary, Schumacher manipulates that format into an authentic, coherent, well-paced character study while never missing the chance to lambaste the LOR process’s more annoying aspects (students we barely know hunting us down in desperation two days before a letter is due; students who received awful grades demanding recommendations anyway; letters for jobs in industries of which we have no knowledge; poorly-designed Web forms that cut us off mid-sentence).

No, what changes is Fitger himself. As the situation for his protégé Darren worsens, the letters change—and so does Fitger, from irredeemable curmudgeon to multifaceted human. He’s not only righteously angry, we realize, but exhausted: With academia, with writing letters, and most of all with himself. And a clever betrayal by one of his heroes—undertaken while Fitger himself does a sizeable and (for him) selfless favor for an actual friend—works to turn the book’s theme upside down and reveal what it was really about the entire time.

For Dear Committee Members isn’t really an academic novel, or even an academic satire (since most of its depictions of Payne University barely count as hyperbole). It’s a sincere exploration of the depths and breadths of human selfishness, and the contemporary American academy is simply the backdrop, precisely because nowhere else could Fitger’s particular sort of self-obsession be given the autonomy to both metastasize and self-immolate. So in the end, it is exactly Fitger’s selfishness that destructs, rather than his life—and although his semi-redemption may not redeem the rank carcass of academic culture that continues to fester around him, it’s more than enough to recommend this mischievous novel.

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Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher. Doubleday.

Dear Committee Members: A novel

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