Novel in letters skewers and admires academics

“Dear Committee Members” by Julie Schumacher (Doubleday, 180 pages, $22.95)

Can a satire also be an homage? Apparently so. It’s tricky to pull off, but Julie Schumacher does it in “Dear Committee Members,” the story of a beleaguered English professor toiling away at a nameless liberal-arts college.

The novel is told entirely through Jason Fitger’s letters of recommendation, the currency used in academia to vouch for promising students, to support colleagues for promotions and fellowships, to offer opinion on the abilities of potential administrators. We see what’s happening only through his correspondence – we never see replies – and how both his tone and his personal outlook change over the course of an academic year.

It needs to be said that Fitger is not particularly sympathetic: he’s a cranky, self-centered, washed-up novelist teaching creative writing, and his surroundings – a dust-filled building under renovation – don’t help his mood. However, he has nothing but glowing words for one of his graduate students, giving above-and-beyond effort to get the student some measure of support so he can finish his novel, a retelling of “Bartleby the Scrivener” set in a bordello. Fitger has less-than-glowing words, ranging from backhanded compliments to downright contempt, for pretty much everyone else: students who come out of the woodwork and ask for a reference based on mediocre performance in a class three semesters ago, colleagues up for tenure, colleagues not up for tenure, administrators, other departments, his ex-wife, his ex-girlfriend. And for the rare few from whom he really wants something: pleading solicitude.

Fitger is old-school – he thoughtfully composes his letters and sends them largely on paper, and is easily frustrated by the fill-in-the-box, limited-character nature of online references. His responses to some of the online forms are hilarious (and most aren’t suitable for quotation in a newspaper) but probably don’t do the hapless, unknowing recommendees any good. His letters run the gamut from strict skill assessment and personal opinion to friendly, off-topic chattiness, apologies, snide remarks and cris de coeur. Some even have footnotes. They probably don’t do the hapless, unknowing recommendees any good, either.

While Fitger can be bitter, snarky and insensitive, it’s also clear that he is passionate about writing and the humanities. He doesn’t think of students as “consumers” and he fights for English to get the same respect as the shiny new economics department going in on the floor above his.

Schumacher’s satire of the petty rivalries, byzantine hierarchies and committee meetings is spot on – scathing and laugh-out-loud funny. But it’s clear that she also has a great deal of respect for the large amount of thankless work that many professors do, the love they have for their profession and their dedication to their students – hence the “homage” part, earnest and bittersweet.

You don’t have to be an academic to enjoy this novel (you will get more of the jokes, though), which gives an incisive and entertaining – and fairly cynical – look inside the ivory tower.