Dear Committee Members promises only to entertain us. It’s a novel written in letters of recommendation, and we all know how tortured the language of recommendation is, what fun can be had there: satire, farce, delight! The book delivers on this promise: it is funny, very funny. But what astonishes me is how smartly and smoothly this very funny book reveals the crisis of higher education, the tragedy of certain authors, the charming but ham-handed ways of certain men.
Full disclosure: I am a university professor. I have written many letters of recommendation, all of which I keep tidily organized in a file on my laptop. These letters represent an enormous investment of my time and creative energy — an investment that often seems unacknowledged, even (especially?) by the people for whom I write. I also have a decade’s experience writing letters to department chairs, admissions offices, colleagues, grad school chums… in short, I have written all of the kinds of letters that appear in this novel. Jay Fitger, the protagonist, takes far more liberties with his letters than I would dare. But the letters are none the less authentic-feeling, and the way their details, asides, PS’s, and references cohere into a picture of his life and his university reveals something very true about what is becoming of the arts and humanities, about the sort of men who possess secure positions within institutions of higher ed, and about the precarious situations of just about everyone else, including the students.
Did I mention it is also very funny?
Jay Fitger is a somewhat endearing jackass. He is arrogant, insecure, a bit of a clod. He’s a once-promising author trying to fill the role of the mentor to a younger writer, and he’s failing miserably. As this story develops we are intrigued by his motivations: why is he so desperate to help this young man? This is a question Jay Fitger needs to answer for himself, as well. We want to understand his tense relationships with the new director of the Bentham Literary Residency Program, his university’s law school admissions officer, and the associate director of student services: Eleanor, Janet, and Carole, respectively.
It seems impossible to me that this protagonist could be a woman: his maleness is an essential part of his behavior, especially where the story touches on his writing workshop days, how he was the beneficiary of his teacher’s attention and connections, how the women in the workshop were subject to a certain misogyny, how sex and power affected the writing and the relationships, how he was fast-tracked into a certain kind of career while the women writers made their own ways elsewhere. When Jay Fitger finds himself, at long last, having to beg the women he’s betrayed for professional favors, of course he fears they will take their cold, sweet revenge. There is also the familiar but probably unconscious sexism where he has absolute faith in the genius of his male student’s unrealized (and fairly derivative) work, and is willing to promote that work with extreme measures, while the completed (and soon to be very successful) work of his female student he only damns with faint praise, mentioning stories about “female relationships” which are “presumably autobiographical” and have “occasional quirks of tone,” before moving on to complain about his busy schedule. Jay Fitger reads very much like the last inheritor of the old guard, situated in (and stymied by) a world no longer as ready to give him the benefit of every doubt. He is a beneficiary of certain unearned privileges that have come to serve him less and less over the years, a wielder of outsized powers that have decreased as time has gone by. But he is self-aware and plays his part well, now, for laughs, which is why we may find him endearing, amusing, even sad. He represents exactly the sort of professor who should retire because he can never change. But it is the job of protagonists to change. And besides, his position grants him the confidence (if not authority) to say things others might not, as when he tells the “Associate Vice Provost”:
Faculty acknowledge your need to save money: like most universities, Payne is rapidly pricing itself into oblivion, not by giving modest raises to nationally respected scholars, but by starving some departments while building heated yoga studios and indoor climbing walls in others. To afford the amenities inextricably tied to their education, students need wealthy financial backers or a mountain of loans—and so many on- and off-campus jobs they barely have time to go to class.
And perhaps this is where the genius of the book emerges: a man attempting alternately to play his “wry provocateur” role and to be honest (with himself and others) through a medium where such humor and antagonism seems particularly out of place, and where honesty likewise withers. The tension is both hilarious and revelatory. And there are moments when you want to cheer:
Iris Temple has applied to your MFA program in fiction and has asked me to support, via this LOR, her application. I find this difficult to do, not because Ms. Temple is unqualified (she is a gifted and disciplined writer and has published several stories in appropriately obscure venues), but because your program at Torreforde State offers its graduate writers no funding or aid of any kind—an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students, to whom you extend the false hope that writing a $50,000 check to your institution will be the first step toward artistic success.
Or perhaps even more so:
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 upon which a human being might reasonably live. Perhaps your institution should cut to the chase and put its entire curriculum online, thereby sparing Ruefle the need to move to Lattimore, wherever that is. You could prop him up in a broom closet in his apartment, poke him with the butt end of a mop when you need him to cough up a lecture on Caribbean fiction or the passive voice, and then charge your students a thousand dollars each to correct the essays their classmates have downloaded from a website. Such is the future of education.
There are other moments, though, when you want to strike Jay Fitger in his boundary-crossing nose, as when he writes a letter of recommendation for Carole Samarkind, his former lover (who wishes to escape the drama of working on the same campus with both her ex-lover and her ex-lover’s ex-wife), and he includes details of their relationship:
Our years of tumbling in the hay began, if memory serves, soon after that. Apologies for the candor—which, as dean of what was recently known as a Bible college, you may experience as a bit of a shock—but I assure you these personal comments are entirely relevant. Why is Ms. Samarkind applying to Shepardville College? At the risk of revealing myself to be an egotist, I submit that I figure prominently into her decision.
Of course even when he’s inappropriate, he still makes you laugh. The same letter continues:
Let’s consider the facts: Carole is comfortably installed at a research university—dysfunctional, yes; second-tier, without question—but we do have a modest reputation here at Payne. Shepardville, on the other hand, is a third-tier college teetering on the edge of a potato field and is still lightly infused with the tropical flavor of offbeat fundamentalism propagated by its millionaire founder, a white-collar criminal who is currently—correct me if I’m wrong—atoning for multiple financial missteps in the Big House in Texas.
The circumstances of Fitger’s English department at Payne University (and the author did have some fun with the names throughout the book) are tragicomic: programs have been cut, research money denied, a professor of Sociology has been put in charge, and the faculty are encased in a cloud of construction dust — construction for the beautiful new offices for Economics professors upstairs. The symbolism is amusing, but it’s never merely symbolic. After all, when the graduate creative writing program was cut, those students were set adrift: students have lives and actions have consequences. What happened to those students is as important to the story as Jay Fitger’s bowl-swirling career. The letters that make up this novel are a fascinating terrain where satire and sympathy keep close company – they amuse us, but they also open a window into a world that’s breathtakingly real. Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is the best sort of novel: the laugh-out-loud page-turner that also bleeds and breathes, the satire you want to quote to friends, the book that lets you in on the joke so you can better see the truth of the world.