I’ve worked in academia long enough to know how fraught it can be. In addition to teaching, research, writing, and all the things we do as part of our regular jobs, we also have to justify our existence. Speaking for libraries, we have to prove and reprove that we are having a measurable positive impact on students. The “measurable” part is hard, especially in the liberal arts. How to do you measure opening students minds to new perspectives? How do you measure inspiration? In Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members, a hilarious satire of academic life, I get the feeling that the return-on-investment thinking is driving protagonist Jason Fitger slowly crazy.
Dear Committee Members is one of the few epistolary novels I’ve seen published in the last, well, century. It’s a tricky format to pull off. I’m sure that just mentioning that this novel is written entirely in letters will put some people off. Dear Committee Members is utterly unlike eighteenth and nineteenth century epistolary novels. There’s no dialog. There’s no descriptions of action. These letters really are letters. What makes it all work is Fitger’s voice. Jason Fitger is a formerly feted author who now works as a professor of creative writing and literature at Payne University. The building that houses his department is undergoing partial renovations. (The Economics Department is getting new digs.) Consequently, Fitger and his fellow English folk have to put up with erratic plumbing, strange and “mephitic” odors, asbestos, noise, and more for the entire academic year. This is on top of having a sociologist named as temporary chair of the Engli_h department—the “s” went missing at some point—and hiring freeze and failing technology.
At the beginning of the 2009/2010 academic year, Fitger is trying to get his most promising student a residency at a prestigious writing program in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, Fitger’s personal history with many members of the literary world work against him. We learn about this history of the course of Fitger’s many letters to potential employers for his students via letters of recommendation, letters of complaint to the university’s administration, and query letters to his publisher. Fitger just cannot stay on point in his letters and they frequently devolve into rants, embellished with Fitger’s impressive vocabulary and the absurd surreality of his daily work life.
I listened to this book, purely to have something to occupy my brain while I made dinner and did the dishes. I ended up listening to the entire four hour audiobook, only pausing to laugh at Fitger’s antics so that I wouldn’t miss the next sentence. If it had only made me laugh, I would have adored the book anyway. What sent this book to my favorites list was its bittersweet ending and Fitger’s love of the written word. (I actually ended up ordering my own copy so that I can re-read it and push it on other readers.)
Throughout Dear Committee Members, Fitger keeps trying to get paying residencies or campus jobs for his most talented students. He believes that budding writers need to be given financial support so that they can hone their craft. Without paid positions, we lose their talent, what they might have written. Fitger’s quest is quixotic in this day and age, but he fights anyway. The last letters in this book nearly broke my heart because I share the same love as Fitger for the intangible value of literature. Thinking purely in terms of dollars and sense will rob us of the best parts of our culture because it’s value can’t be measured in hard numbers.
I am going to tell every reader I know to read this book.
Notes for bibliotherapeutic use: Give this to readers who need to reminded that they’re not alone in believing that literature matters.