The setup is familiar: A middle-aged English professor (white, male, tenured) at a fictional mid-level university surveys the wreckage of his personal life and professional aspirations and reflects on how it all went awry. Supporting characters include the professor's exes (bitter); his colleagues (eccentric); his students (entitled); and the university's administrators (distant).
But a new academic novel — Julie Schumacher's Dear Committee Members, out today from Doubleday — breathes life into even the most tired tropes of the genre, thanks in part to its inspired construction: an epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members is written entirely in the form of letters of recommendation.
The letters are written by one Jason T. Fitger, professor of creative writing and English at Payne University ("You must have more fun with the name over there than we do," Fitger writes in a letter on behalf of a student applying to the university's medical school).
Now in his mid-50s, Fitger started his career with a hit novel, but followed it with a string of duds. His ex-wife, who works in admissions at Payne's law school, will tolerate his company on just two occasions each year: the date of their marriage and that of their divorce. His ex-girlfriend, who works in student services, only recently became "ex" after an unfortunate reply-all error on Fitger's part. And his one remaining graduate student, on whom Fitger has pinned the vestiges of his professional hopes — Payne's MFA program "has been put on the chopping block, all funds to be diverted to the technical fields" — is struggling to finish his unsalable manuscript, "a retelling of Melville's Bartleby" wherein the protagonist keeps the books at a Vegas brothel.
We know all this because Fitger's letters are wildly out of line, self-absorbed, full of irrelevant personal information and almost certain to torpedo the prospects of any candidate he recommends. His letters — written on behalf of students, department colleagues, and his own (usually former) friends and acquaintances — are riddled with asides on subjects ranging from the insects populating his office ("a beetle, two moths, a centipede, and several bluebottle flies") to the affair that ended his 14-year marriage ("brief, unsatisfying, pointless").
The conceit is a tricky one: letters of recommendation are, by definition, not supposed to convey very much about their authors. But Dear Committee Members works by convincing the reader that, if anyone could be the type to turn a letter ostensibly about someone else into a meditation on his own stalled career, his failed marriage, or his loss of religious faith, Jason Fitger is that person. And academe, of course, is just where one would find him.
In an interview with Inside Higher Ed, Schumacher explained that Fitger's character grew from her idea for the novel's structure. Schumacher, who is professor of creative writing and English at the University of Minnesota, was talking to her students about how a story can be written in many formats beyond the traditional narrative. When a student asked her what creative format she herself might use, Schumacher hit on the idea of writing a novel in letters of recommendation, "because I do so many of those!"
In order for such letters to convey a novel's worth of plot, a protagonist "would have to write letters that were entirely inappropriate," Schumacher said. "This guy has to be talking about himself all the time; by extension, he had to become an egotist, a loudmouth, indiscreet."
Fitger is all those things and worse besides — as Slate's Rebecca Schuman notes, Fitger's stalkerish behavior toward his ex-girlfriend, in particular, is treated rather too lightly. But he is not a totally unsympathetic character, especially as the novel progresses. Fitger cares about his students; he cares about his colleagues; and he cares about the state of higher education at large.
And his observations are trenchant. It may not break new ground to complain about the plights of (for example) adjunct faculty members, grad students, or the humanities. But in Fitger's letters these truisms of academe are freshly poignant and often extremely funny.
On behalf of a Ph.D. graduate now applying for an adjunct job, Fitger writes, "Alex Ruefle has prevailed upon me to support his teaching application to your department, which I gather is hiring adjunct faculty members exclusively, bypassing the tenure track with its attendant health benefits, job security, and salaries on which a human being might reasonably live."
On behalf of an undergraduate applying to an MFA program: "I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified... but because your program... offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind — an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students...."
And on behalf of a new Ph.D. applying for an assistant professorship: "Good luck to her and to all of us... and congratulations on the tenure-track line. We aren't hiring in the liberal arts at Payne.... We who are senior and tenured are seated in the first car of a roller coaster with a broken track, and we're scribbling and grading our way to the death fall at the top."
While Fitger's ire finds many targets, his most caustic jeremiads concern the university's increasing focus on vocationally oriented fields at the expense of the humanities — a theme to which his letters return time and again. Supporting the nomination of a departmental colleague for a service award, for example, Fitger writes: "...[I]n the wake of the deliberate gutting of the liberal arts, English in particular, in favor of the technological sciences — he has held together the tattered scraps of the literature and writing programs, which the faceless gremlins in your office have condemned to indigence and ruin."
Regarding an associate professor of Slavic languages whose bid for promotion to full professor has been denied, Fitger rants, "Why feature photos of bearded brontosauri on the university brag sheets when there are younger, more handsome whiz-bang faculty (perhaps... yes! in the Economics Department!) who will attract more financial interest, instead?"
By the novel's end, no solutions have been offered nor any problems solved; Fitger, for his part, experiences something less than a personal transformation. But then, that's sort of the point.
"It's a difficult time in higher education," Schumacher said, "and I hope the book points that out in a way that's not painfully moralistic."
Far from it: from the satirical perspective of the aggrieved Fitger, Schumacher delineates very real problems and renders them hilarious without trivializing their human impact. Readers who are themselves tasked with writing entirely too many letters of recommendation may well wish they could write some like Fitger's; failing that, they are likely to enjoy reading his.