Don’t read Dear Committee Members if your expectation of the epistolary novel is Clarissa. As its dust cover proclaims, this is “a novel that puts the ‘pissed’ back into epistolary.” How could one resist? I didn’t. I might however append a warning, “Take care reading this book if you are an academic, particularly a member of an English or Creative Writing Department, facing the end of semester pile of marking and the ever growing email inbox of laments over grades and requests for references.” Schumacher has captured your life. You will either collapse in a state of almost uncontrollable hilarity, or you will weep. You may do both.
Fractionally smaller in hardback (5 ½” x 8″) than the usual paperback pocket book and only 180 pages of text, this is not a long book. However, in those 180 pages, through the letters of reference written by Professor Jason T. Fitger over the course of an academic year, Schumacher satirizes the current state of academic and literary life.
Author of the novels Stain, Alphabetical Stars, Save Me for Later, and Transfer of Affection, Professor Fitger, Jay to his friends and colleagues, teaches Creative Writing and Literature at the appropriately named Payne University. Divorced from his wife, now a power to be reckoned with in the Law School Admissions Office, and apparently ignored by his literary agent, Jay struggles to engage students in the study of English literature and encourage them to write something other than “vivid and celebratory depiction[s] of murder and mayhem, complete with flesh-eating robots, werewolves, resurrections from the crypt, or some combination of the above” (37).
Jay writes letters recommending students for dead end jobs with prospective employers who, as he points out, cannot use the apostrophe correctly; he recommends students to graduate school, to law school and to the Bentham Literary Residence Program. He recommends fellow scholars for tenure and for sessional work elsewhere. He reminds the university administration about his badly fitting window and the leak in the men’s room in Willard Hall that is “gradually transforming this previously charming depot into a fetid cavern” (42). He reminds them that his department does indeed understand “the financial crunch” but the “fiscal fix is being applied selectively” After all, The Economics Department is receiving new office space and “For those in the sciences and social sciences, sacrifice will come in the form of fewer varieties of pate on the lunch trays” (43).
Through Jay’s letters, Schumacher creates a highly sympathetic character, intensely human and recognisable in his idiosyncrasies, strengths and flaws, someone who despite everything maintains his belief in the value of what he does or tries to do. Schumacher holds a mirror up to the state of academia at present. What we see in that mirror, even as we laugh with rueful recognition, is not the most attractive or optimistic of pictures, especially for those in Humanities. In a letter to a former student who has now achieved a tenure track position, Jay articulates our fears: I fear we are the last remaining members of a dying profession. We . . . 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. The stately academic career featuring black-robed professors striding confidently across the campus square is already fading; and, though I’ve often railed against its eccentricities, I want to proclaim here that I believe our mission and our way of life to have been admirable and lovely, steeped with purpose and worth defending. But we are nearly at the tipping point, I suspect, and will soon be a thing of the past” (105).
As I said, this novel will make you laugh uproariously. It may also make you weep.