Dear Laborers in the Trenches of Academia,
Here we are, deep in August, a month that has exactly one proper purpose: vacation. I hope you’re reading this from a beach chair, your toes dug into sun-warmed sand, or from a deck looking out over sparkling water you’ve just swum in or sailed across. For the sake of your precarious mental health, I hope you’re able to sustain the illusion that this dulcet interlude is not barreling to a close.
And I do appreciate your giving your attention to this letter of recommendation, especially in light of the timing. I’m writing to urge upon you — fervently and without reservation — Julie Schumacher’s “Dear Committee Members,” a slender epistolary novel that repeatedly left me helpless with laughter, and to ask that you not blame the author for her publisher’s cruelty. Releasing a brilliant, biting satire of academia in August, when the beleaguered denizens of higher education, the novel’s natural core readership, are trying desperately to rest and refuel for the battles ahead? That pierces right through the armor of denial.
The book itself, however, is a balm for wounds already inflicted. At its center is the marvelously sardonic, self-defeatingly combative Jason T. Fitger, a middle-age professor of creative writing and English at Payne University, a fictional institution whose opinion of its English department is so low that a sociologist has been named its new chair.
Fitger started out as a hotshot novelist, but that career has been stalled for years. His writing these days consists largely of the amusingly digressive letters of recommendation he pens for students and colleagues, in which he appears unable not to speak his embittered, outraged mind. Sometimes, of course, giving vent is exactly his aim:
“I need to lodge a belated complaint against the poet — Randolph Marlin — whom I invited to campus in December on your say-so; he was even more of an egomaniac than I expected. Where do poets — with their readership in the low double figures — get off exhibiting that kind of flagrant self-regard? He quizzed the undergrads about his work and then faulted their answers. He wanted to know which of his poems they’d committed to memory. Good god: it was all I could do to restrain myself from saying that my own objective was to try to forget his wretched, soporific lines as completely as possible.”
That’s just a P.S., by the way.
Fitger is not politic, though he sometimes imagines himself to be. He tries one old connection after another on behalf of a favorite student he wants to launch into literary success. In a letter to a university admissions department for a different writer, he shames that school for not funding its graduate students, a failure that he calls “an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse” — probably not an argument that helps her chance of getting in.
The beauty of “Dear Committee Members” is that Fitger is not just an eloquent professor with a poison pen. He’s previously alienated quite a few of the people whose favor he attempts to curry here, his ex-wife and ex-girlfriend included, and he has a habit of compounding the insults anew with each communication. But for all his corrosiveness, he’s actually one of the good guys: a generous defender of gifted students, underappreciated colleagues, and fine scholarship.
He’s a romantic, really, a champion of academia. And he does love being a writer, “which, despite its horrors, is possibly one of the few sorts of lives worth living at all.”
You might be reluctant to contemplate the workaday world in the waning days of August, but I promise you that “Dear Committee Members” is very funny — funnier than I’ve shown you here, because I don’t want to spoil the author’s many excellent jokes. If nothing else, pick the book up when you head back to school. The laughter will be a solace.
Yours in the quest for a splendid read,