Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

dear committee members by julie schumacherFormat read: eARC provided by the publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genre: Contemporary Fiction
Length: 181 pages
Publisher: Doubleday
Date Released: August 19, 2014
Purchasing Info: Author’s Website, Publisher’s Website, Goodreads, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, Book Depository

Finally, a novel that puts the “pissed” back into “epistolary.”

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University, a small and not very distinguished liberal arts college in the midwest. His department is facing draconian cuts and squalid quarters, while one floor above them the Economics Department is getting lavishly remodeled offices. His once-promising writing career is in the doldrums, as is his romantic life, in part as the result of his unwise use of his private affairs for his novels. His star (he thinks) student can’t catch a break with his brilliant (he thinks) work Accountant in a Bordello, based on Melville’s Bartleby.

In short, his life is a tale of woe, and the vehicle this droll and inventive novel uses to tell that tale is a series of hilarious letters of recommendation that Fitger is endlessly called upon by his students and colleagues to produce, each one of which is a small masterpiece of high dudgeon, low spirits, and passive-aggressive strategies. We recommend Dear Committee Members to you in the strongest possible terms.

My Review:

It’s the incredibly funny snark of Dear Committee Members that is being called out in reviews and summaries. And the book is an absolute screaming hoot for anyone who has ever had to navigate the “hallowed halls of academe” or any arcane, entrenched bureaucracy.

Each of the individual letters in Professor Jason Fitger’s voluminous collection of Letters of Recommendation (LORs) is bitingly funny and sarcastically skewering, sometimes both at the same time.

Fitger is honest to a fault about the qualities of the various candidates, as well as painfully and painstakingly clear about the situation in which he finds himself and his reasons for being willing to write the letters.

Because while Fitger is recommending (or sometimes damning with very faint praise) his current and former students for positions for which they may or may not be either qualified for or happy with, he also manages to couch his lack of enthusiasm in language of honesty and eloquence.

Especially the skewers.

At the same time, the situation at his college is dire, dangerous and emblematic of the problems facing the humanities in colleges today. The English Department doesn’t make money and doesn’t produce graduates who can donate large sums of money to the alumni fund.

And they are part of the national trend in replacing tenure-track positions with hordes of underpaid adjunct faculty who have no benefits and receive paltry stipends. All the money is going to marquee faculty in science and technology fields.

Fitger and his colleagues are being squeezed out, not just in a war of attrition, but also by being forced to work in a hazardous waste site. (The fax machine dies when a block of concrete crashes down from the ceiling above).

Through it all, Fitger writes letters. Each individual letter is funny as hell, but the overall picture he paints of the future of the college and of his own past carries an element of tragedy to it.

Underneath the snark, there is a cry for help and a sense of regret for things both done and not done. Underneath the paint, the clown is crying.

Escape Rating B+/A-: This is a hard book to rate. I read through it in a couple of hours, as I couldn’t wait to see Fitger’s trenchant take on his student’s capabilities. I was also mining each letter for clues about Fitger’s life and view of the world.

He’s looking both back and forward, and he’s not happy with either view. But he still keeps trying to save what can be saved, and to rage against the loss of what cannot. In the end, his reward (or perhaps punishment) for all his letters and voluminous attempts to save his department is totally fitting.

Read the letters for the laughs. You’ll be left with both a smile and a tear.

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