In Dear Committee Members, Julie Schumacher, the author of five novels for young readers, a short story collection, and a critically acclaimed first novel, The Body of Water, explores university politics, warring academic factions, and the dark side of publishing through the eyes of Jay Fitger, a sardonic, slightly unstable but honest-to-a-fault English professor at Payne University. With equal parts reality and parody, comedy and tragedy, this engrossing epistolary novel unspools in a series of embittered, desperate, and often highly inappropriate letters of recommendations Professor Fitger submits on behalf of his students and colleagues.
Jay’s often irascible letters address everyone from the director of a prestigious writers residency to his estranged literary agent to a manager of Catfish Catering and the head of Avengers Paintball, Inc. Through his evaluations, we learn Jay begrudges the nearly effortless success of his overachieving student Vivian Zelles—think Tracey Flick from Tom Perrotta’s Election—and mourns the string of failures of his oft-extolled ingénue, Darren Browles. The epistolary structure not only serves the plot beautifully, but it highlights Jay’s dysfunction as a friend, colleague, ex-husband, teacher, and administrator.
The hilarity of the novel derives from Jay’s inability to stick to the task at hand. Woven throughout his evaluations of candidates’ strengths and weaknesses are rants about dismal funding for his department, the shrinking pool of tenured faculty, and the appalling lack of employability or funding for English graduate students. In Dear Committee Members, Schumacher, who teaches creative writing and English at the University of Minnesota, has tackled several hot-button higher education issues in a most imaginative and entertaining form.
The Rumpus: Which came first—the idea for the protagonist, the imminently plagued creative writing professor Jay Fitger, or the idea for the form—an epistolary novel composed entirely of letters of recommendations?
Julie Schumacher: The form came first. I gave myself a sort of assignment—to try to write a novel entirely in the form of letters of recommendation. Letters of recommendation are typically formulaic and not very interesting, and I quickly realized that in order to develop my main character I would have to create a letter writer who would, very inappropriately, expound about himself and his own frustrations, personal and professional, in the letters he writes for others. Writing the novel was terrific fun.
Rumpus: I found myself so immersed in the story, I almost forgot, at times, that I was reading a compilation of letters. How were you able to achieve this?
Schumacher: I wrote the novel one letter of recommendation at a time, in a composition notebook. I write almost everything by hand, composing on the right side of the notebook, and making notes on the left side about what I’ll need to revise, later. When drafting Dear Committee Members, I re-read a number of epistolary works and studied several novels in particular: Helene Hanf’s 84, Charing Cross Road, Nicholson Baker’s A Box of Matches, and Padget Powell’s The Interrogative Mood. I knew that creating a “through-line” was going to be the greatest challenge for me, and I wanted to understand how other authors had done it.
Rumpus: The letter, whether handwritten or typed, seems to be a lost art form, and Jay is sometimes forced to fit his appraisals into unyielding electronic fill-in-the-blank forms or numerical scales. What is lost when communication is limited to a digitized, pre-fabricated formula?
Schumacher: Oh, now you’re speaking directly to my fears and neuroses about the future. I detest electronic recommendation forms and resist our culture’s wild enthusiasm for all things technological. People tell me we’re saving trees and paper by moving to e-readers and iPhones and iPads, et cetera, et cetera. And I think instead we’re overloading the landfills with ridiculous electronic toys for insatiable consumers. At least paper is biodegradable. Back to your question, what’s lost? Nuance is lost. Artistry is lost. Individuality is lost. Intimacy is lost. Like Jay Fitger, I feel like a dinosaur about to become extinct.
Rumpus: Dear Committee Members is, among other things, a criticism of the current structure of academia whereby poorly paid adjuncts continue to replace salaried, full professors. Is this a sustainable model?
Schumacher: I certainly didn’t conceive of the novel as a manifesto regarding the crises in higher education, but Jay Fitger does critique some of the things that I, and many others, are concerned about: underpaid adjunct faculty, rising costs of education, online vs. traditional classroom experiences, and competition within universities for scarce resources. This is a time of enormous changes in education, and I’m not sure if anyone knows what the endpoint will look like. But it makes no sense for K-12 students to be educated by well-trained and relatively well-compensated teachers, but for college and university students to be educated by adjunct faculty who can’t afford to go to the dentist. It’s an unsustainable model.
Rumpus: Professor Fitger has written some 1,300 letters of recommendation. It’s a daunting number! Do you know how many letters of recommendation you’ve written for current and former students?
Schumacher: I write and read a lot of letters of recommendations, especially during admissions season, which was part of the impetus for the novel. Weary of the form, I began to wonder what percentage of the vast number of letters of recommendations was actually being read, and I was subsequently delighted to learn that the Modern Language Association has begun to adopt guidelines regarding the number and length of reference letters for various occasions. Personally, I’m in favor of phone calls, especially for finalists, whenever practical. Most letters of recommendations are no longer confidential. Phone calls can be.
Rumpus: Do you think letters of recommendation will someday become superfluous, when so much of a person’s qualifications can be gleaned from online platforms such as websites or LinkedIn?
Schumacher: I refuse LinkedIn requests whenever I get them. I aspire to be less, rather than more, plugged in.
Rumpus: Jay is a tireless advocate for his graduate student, the prodigious and prolific Darren Browles, and is stunned when none of his colleagues see Browles’s genius. Jay is similarly bewildered when his less favored student, Vivian Zelles, attains publishing success. What do you consider the definition of success for a writer?
Schumacher: These are questions each writer has to answer for him or herself. Becoming self-supporting as a writer might be more important for one person, while publication or prestige would matter more to another. Jay Fitger reveals himself to be a flawed evaluator of both Browles and Zelles, and the novel does bring up the issue of patronage and favoritism, but these are issues one has to confront in every aspect of professional life. They are not particular to academia or writing programs.
Rumpus: Professor Fitger champions the English department at a university that offers substantially more financial support to other departments. As STEM curricula gains popularity in higher education, humanities, as a discipline, doesn’t seem to be getting the attention it deserves. As a professor in an English department, what do you think needs to happen for the humanities to be valued as a course of study?
Schumacher: I think people do value the humanities, but given the high cost of education and the problem of student debt, they’re reasonably concerned about the connection between a college degree and a job. Professor Fitger weighs in on this issue when he writes, at the end of one letter of recommendation, “the literature student has learned to inquire, to question, to interpret, to critique, to compare, to research, to argue, to sift, to analyze, to shape, to express. His intellect can be put to broad use. The computer major, by contrast, is a technician—a plumber clutching a single, albeit shining, box of tools.” As usual, he’s a bit over the top, but I agree with him.
Rumpus: Creative writing programs don’t seem to look favorably on genre writing, and indeed, Jay’s prejudices against fantasy, in particular, are peppered throughout the narrative. How do you feel about the divisions between genre and literary writing? Do you see a place for genre writing in MFA programs?
Schumacher: I have often discouraged undergrads from genre writing, usually fantasy and horror. Why? Because most students tend to rely so heavily on the conventions of genre that they neglect literary considerations and end up with very formulaic rather than innovative work. I urge students to experiment with language, syntax, diction, character, setting before subjecting themselves to the gravitational pull exerted by genre. As for grad students, I think they should write whatever they want to write. But in critiquing their work, I’ll stress originality and literary considerations, which they can apply to realistic fiction or to horror, however they choose.
Rumpus: Jay is haunted by the publication and success of his debut novel, which, it seems, was molded a little too firmly by the hands of his lauded director at the Seminar, a prestigious creative writing program not unlike the Iowa Writers Workshop. How, as a teacher, do you teach a student to accept and consider criticism without abandoning her own voice or writing goals?
Schumacher: I think the issue of a teacher’s influence is a preview of the author-editor relationship. To what extent should the student or author allow his or her teacher or editor to shape the finished work? Maintaining one’s own voice or vision while at the same time being open-minded in the face of critical feedback. It’s a balance, and it’s not easy to manage.
Rumpus: You wrote a letter to the editor in the New York Times earlier this year criticizing two book reviews, one on Helen Oyeyemi’s Boy Snow Bird and another on Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor’s Dust, for incorporating not-so-subtle digs of creative writing programs in the reviews. Can you comment on this?
Schumacher: There seems to be a weird and widespread anxiety about creative writing programs, the fear that they are producing an army of literary clones all marching in lock step toward the identical piece of short fiction. This sort of fear mongering doesn’t seem to be applied to university-educated architects. Are they all designing identical buildings? Or to graduates of MFA dance programs. Are they all moving their arms and legs the same way?
Rumpus: Dear Committee Members gives the reader a glimpse into the career trajectories of Jay’s colleagues. We learn that most of Jay’s former classmates veered off the literary path and opted instead for careers in administration or publishing. Is this common among serious students of creative writing, for life to get in the way of art, so much so that the writer never returns to writing after graduation?
Schumacher: Lots of things get in the way of art. Discouragement is at the top of the list, along with the need to earn money and the birth of children. It’s hard to tell, when you’re new at writing, whether you might be foolish to continue to pursue the dream, or whether the more foolish choice would be to put that dream to bed. Luck plays a role, too, as it does in every other aspect of life. Continuing to find a place for art in one’s life is a continual challenge. But graduating with an MFA and deciding to move on to some other pursuit—there’s no shame in that at all.
Rumpus: Given the proliferation of MFA programs over the last twenty years, do you think there are now too many programs?
Schumacher: I think the proliferation of MFA programs is a non-issue. Are too many people trying to write well? To create meaning? To entertain? Good god, what a nightmare!
Rumpus: What do you feel are the greatest benefits to studying creative writing in MFA programs?
Schumacher: Most people go to MFA programs because they want to write, they want to become better writers, and they want to publish. They want to spend a few years of their lives with people who care about literature as much as they do.
The real issues are these: One, do people entering MFA programs have unrealistic expectations about publication or teaching positions? Two, are those people going into debt?
There is no “should” when it comes to trying to write poetry or fiction or nonfiction. What MFA programs can offer is time away from the job market to concentrate on one’s work. I think of the MFA at the University of Minnesota, where all students are funded, as a three-year parenthesis in the larger fabric of a life. Write for three years. Spend that time talking to people who care about writing as passionately as you do. Recognize that you may not agree with them or want to take their advice.
And if you can find a way to create that parenthesis outside the academy? Terrific. Whatever works.