Friday, October 24, 2014

"Dear Committee Members," by Julie Schumacher

I admit I am partial to academic novels, and especially to those that are satires on academic life. Some of the most famous and hilarious examples of these satirical novels are Kingsley Amis’ “Lucky Jim”; David Lodge’s “campus trilogy” of “Changing Places,” “Small World,” and “Nice Work”; and Jane Smiley’s “Moo." I have read each of these, sometimes more than once, with pleasure and laughter. “Dear Committee Members” (Doubleday, 2014), although not quite at the level of the above examples, is a worthy member of their group. In this brief epistolary novel, Julie Schumacher skewers many aspects of academe today. The book consists of a series of recommendation letters written by the increasingly grumpy and beleaguered professor at a third tier university (not very subtly named Payne University) in the American Midwest. Professor Jason Fitger writes reference letters for fellow faculty members and, mostly, students. The letters are for grad school, jobs, internships, fellowships, promotions, and more. But Professor Fitger cannot bring himself to merely spout the traditional platitudes, or to pretend a student is brilliant when she/he is not. The letters often go off on hilarious (but in a way sad) sidetracks about his own problems at work and in his personal life (they often intertwine), the decline of his university and of academe in general, and his impatience with the foibles of his colleagues and of students. And yet, it is clear that underneath it all, he cares about his students and others in his life, and genuinely wishes things were better for the state of academe today. A thread throughout the novel, for example, deals with his increasingly desperate, although still somewhat comic, efforts to help a bright but impoverished student; Fitger pleads with everyone he knows to provide the student with financial aid, a job, a place to stay, anything to enable him to continue studying and to survive. This novel, although with roots in the novels mentioned above, is truly original, and both entertaining and dismaying. But mostly it makes the reader, especially but not only a reader herself associated with academe, laugh, often out loud, albeit with an exasperated recognition of the truth of the situations portrayed.
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