If every member of the human race evinced a fondness for literature and even a moderate level of dexterity with the written word, I would be a happier, if not more well-adjusted, man.
Jay Fitger is an underpaid, tortured and tenured English professor at Payne University. His professional life at this B-level college has largely devolved into writing letters of recommendation (LOR) for everyone from his students to a stranger who collared him outside the men’s room the day before Thanksgiving, who was never even a student of his but lay down on his office floor until he wrote said letter. All this and more is found in Julie Schumacher’s hilarious novel, Dear Committee Members. Solely through letters to everyone from department heads to the owner of Flanders Nut House, a portrait of Fitger emerges—a very complete portrait, as he includes personal details in many of his letters—especially those written to his department chair and other faculty members at Payne as he begs them for positions within their departments for students, teaching assistants, and even graduates.
Schumacher is herself a professor of English at a university and the weary, passive-aggressive tone of Fitger as he wheedles and mocks can only be the result of someone who knows the system too well. Her prose is spot-on for someone who spends their life with words and still believes in their ability to effect change. Here Fitger is trying to get a mentorship position in a different department for another person who is a stranger to him:
…I have skimmed her CV and her letter-of-interest, both of which express her theater of the absurd language about pedagogy and the euphoria of learning. Suffering creature! By all means yes, yes! I endorse her bid for the mentorship: may the bump in salary allow her to avoid scurvy by adding fruit to her diet once a week.
Other tidbits that come to life in Fitger’s epistolary gems are his divorce from the wife he still loves and the inadvertent acknowledgment of that love to his current girlfriend in a reply-all email. All of these combined make it clear life is not working out quite as he imagined and he’s no longer willing to pretend it is.
Dear Committee Members succeeds as a wry, highly intelligent parody of academia but Fitger is not only a caricature of a beleaguered professor churning out letters for B and even C level students. He has real convictions and heartfelt beliefs about some of these people, namely a student and advisee, Darren Browles. Darren is working on a novel but no longer has the money to attend school. Fitger writes letters first to residency programs, then MFA programs, his agent, and finally to an RV park looking for a manager. None of these letters go anywhere and we feel Fitger’s very real despair over the young man’s situation. It creates a poignancy that makes Dear Committee Members more than just a sly, sulky, funny look at what is happening to the arts in colleges today. Instead, by the end of the novel Fitger shows us the reality behind the humor.
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