Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher is the reason I finally have fully integrated use of the word “epistolary.” Certainly I’ve read epistolary novels before; heck, some of my very favorite books take this form: Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Helen Fielding’s Bridget Jones’ Diary, Max Brooks’ World War Z, Nick Bantock’s Griffin and Sabine, and certain parts of Jennifer Egan’s A Visit From the Goon Squad. Each of these books tells the story through a series of documents – journal entries, letters, newspaper articles, interviews, or, in the case of Good Squad, a series of PowerPoint slides.
Dear Committee Members does right by these predecessors and offers something new to the mix – a novel built out of nothing but (dreaded) letters of recommendation. Schumacher flexes these letters to tell the story of an egotistical, disgruntled, and often well-meaning professor of English under the stresses of department budget cuts, a dwindling writing career, and numerous personal missteps. Jay Fitger is despised by many on campus for his “satire” of academic machinations and personal relationships through his three published novels and his outspokenness in meetings.
But Fitger, abrasive as he is, writes a damned interesting letter of rec. He speaks his mind honestly, frequently lashing out at administration who have slashed funding, cut the English graduate program, and are forcing the department to work in a building undergoing reconstruction. Through his letters Schumacher also mocks the relationships of department members, types of students, undergraduate creative writing, and last minute recommendation letter requests.
As an English teacher in a high school, many, many of these characters and situations were recognizable to me, and reading Fitger’s vitriolic prose proved somewhat cathartic.
There is, of course, also a real story building through the letters. Fitger is desperately advocating for his graduate student, Darren Browles, who is working on a rewrite of Bartleby the Scrivener as an accountant in a brothel outside of Las Vegas. Fitger believes the manuscript to be brilliant and sees Browles as his one chance to get the graduate program re-instated if Browles can get a book deal.
Brilliantly, Schumacher plants this idea of rewriting Bartleby to highlight how Fitger’s letter writing life parallels the hapless Bartleby. Fitger too would “prefer not to,” but he still believes he can make a dent. That’s what separates him from Melville’s mysterious anti-establishment hero – Fitger, underneath his prickly exterior, still cares about his students and his old friends from the Seminar who receive his letters.
Dear Committee Members is a fast read, beautifully written, and scathing satire of today’s arts-based academia. I highly recommend it. It will be available in all of your favorite places to find books August 19th.