WARNING: THIS REVIEW HAS SPOILERS

Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members presents English Professor Jason Fitger at “Payne University” and what I presume is only a sample of the numerous letters of recommendation his job requires him to write. It’s an epistolary novel, composed of these letters, letters to the department chair and various university administrators, and, occasionally, his attempts to fill out online forms.

I don’t like Fitger. He represents the to me all too believable caricature of the “oppressed” academics who, to quote NPR’s review, “feel that their genius has never gotten its due.” True to form, Fitger sometimes claims to feel a responsibility to the undergraduates who pay his salary but only rarely does he demonstrate that sense of responsibility by writing a letter of recommendation that actually is designed to help the student get the job or the scholarship or admission letter to grad school or law school or medical school. His letters of rec instead go off on personal tangents about his own and his department’s beleaguered position at the university or about unflattering traits of his recommendees. He’s the type of guy who says, “sure, I’ll write a letter,” but then writes something really bad.

In his letters to the department chair and to people higher up in administration, we hear the familiar complaint of “I know there are budget difficulties” with the added but unstated complaint that “but those difficulties should never have to affect me or my department in any way.” And again another complaint, his creative writing program and the English department itself is disfavored because–The Horror! The Horror!–disciplines like economics are getting more of the pie. A frequent complaint in his letters is about the renovations done for the economics department (in the same building as English, but a floor above), and dust and inconvenience such renovation causes him.

Not that he has nothing to complain of. If we trust him (see below), then it is probably a shame that his program and grad students are being continuously disfavored in favor of other programs.

Still, rare is his acknowledgment that maybe people shouldn’t go into debt to get degrees in creative writing (his bailiwick). And when he does acknowledge it, it’s only to say that creative writing students (if they’re graduate students, if not, he’ll just mis-write a letter of rec while they search for a job to pay their debts) need to be “funded.” And towards the end of the novel, we find the maudlin consequence of the paucity of funding:

 

[WARNING, HERE’S A MAJOR SPOILER]

 

His most promising grad student, working on a novel of a lifetime, loses funding and because Mr. Fitger cannot find a “residency” or more funding, this student commits suicide. There seems to be some recognition of Mr. Fitger’s own role in the case, but who can blame him? He’s in the trenches doing the best he can. Little consideration over whether he advocate restructuring the program so as to make it more appealing or at least better able meet his students extra-academic needs (like eating, mental health, a decent career).

 

[/END MAJOR SPOILER WARNING]

Now, one of the first things you learn in Literature 101 is that you can’t trust the narrator, and exhibit A is the epistolary novel. We see the letter writer’s words–his rendition of events, his recollections, his biases–but we don’t see others’ perspective. In this sense, the maudlin moment [spoiled above] can be interpreted as the way the very self-centered Fitger sifts through and make sense of the sad event.

Perhaps Schumacher does not intend that we like the character. Perhaps Schumacher is exposing vicious academics for who they are. The blurb on the back of the novel tells me that Schumacher has a position at a university and has “written more letters of recommendation than she cares to remember” (quoted from memory, maybe I’ve got it a bit wrong, but that’s the gist). She’s seen what it’s like, so she can call it out. Or she’s seen what it’s like, and she wants to sound the alarm about the “crisis in the humanities.”

It is there I have to decide whether I trust the author, and not merely the narrator. Presumably as an author herself, Schumacher realizes the don’t trust the narrator rule, but does she observe it? Does she want us to take as granted that about which we should be skeptical, or is she opening up the whole things for grabs, as a good (in the Literature 101 don’t trust the narrator sense) author should?

I don’t know the answer. I’ve taken some lit courses, but don’t know all the permutations and explorations of the “problem of the narrator.” Neither have I ever read anything else by Schumacher, so I can’t judge. I also, deep down, would like to believe the author’s intentions are not important, or are of only minor importance. I would like to believe the work should stand or fall on its own. But I find myself going back to the author and distrusting her artfulness, at least in this case. That I do so probably has as much to do with my own “ambivalent about academics” bias as anything. But there you are.

[p.s. I’m out of town and may not be able to respond as quickly as I’d like to comments.]

 


Category: School

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One Response to Dear Committee Members, a review

  1. Gabriel Conroy says:

    I should have added that the novel is funny, and is intended to be funny. I laughed out loud several times. It’s easy to read and its entertainment value justifies checking it out at the library and giving it a try. I’m just very uncomfortable with the main character and the message the novel seems to be making.

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