11 January 2015

Book Review: Dear Committee Members

Julie Schumacher has written an epistolary novel set in academia. Jason Fitger is a creative writing professor in the English department at a "second tier research university,"  and it's his various letters of inquiry and recommendation that comprise the book.  He, perhaps rightly, feels that Payne University is   unfairly marginalizing the humanities, and he spends much of his time writing letters of complaint to the various deans of the various schools bemoaning this fact.  The rest of the time he writes ironic, satiric, and generally completely unhelpful (and often inappropriate) letters of recommendations for his current and previous students in their efforts to enter law school, MFA programs, writing residencies, divinity school, or just to get a campus work-study job.

Fitger is clearly beleaguered, which isn't helped by the facts that his department chair is a professor of sociology, for Christ's sake, that his building is under renovation to benefit the more profitable Econ department while being a health hazard for the English department, and that he isn't well-liked at Payne.  No doubt the latter has something to do with his writing inappropriate letters to his ex-wife and ex-lover, also employed on campus, and his thinly-veiled fictionalized accounts of both women in his most  recently published novel. Or maybe the general dislike of Fitger on campus stems from his own general misanthropy.

As much as I appreciate the tagline about a book that "puts the pissed back into epistolary," this was not the book for me.  It was just too much of the same thing, page after page.  Reading the letters one or two at a time might be a better way to approach the book, but reading it in one sitting made me often wonder why I was bothering.  Sure, the narrative voice is both smart and snarky, but there are only so many times I can read variations on a theme of the same 2-3 letters.

This book would have been much more successful for me if it had been presented either in a much shorter format (an epistolary short story, if you will), or not presented as a novel at all.  Since there is no character growth until the penultimate letter in the collection, this could just as easily have been published as a humor book, a collection of bogus letters from the frontlines of academia, etc. That way, most people wouldn't be tempted to sit down and read the book straight through.

It's not that I do not recommend this book, per se, but I do recommend taking it in short doses. Here's one particularly good letter, written on behalf of a student applying for a job at a liquor store:

Steve Geng is a senior here at the university, an English/Spanish double major who finagled his way into an independent study (typically I manage to dodge such requests) -- namely, the creation of a mini-anthology of short hallucinatory narratives, each of which begins with a young male speaker (coincidentally named SteveGeng) who has ingested a controlled substance. I believe narrative #1 relies on Adderall, numero dos on mushrooms, and #3 on gin.  
Comely and articulate, Mr. Geng is prone to dreamy non-sequiturs that have endeared him to his peers. I predict that young women will flock to your store in the hopes of hearing him decipher the labels on Chilean and Argentinean wine.

If that excerpt floats your boat, then give this book a try.  Just not all at once.

NB: This book was damaged in transit to my bookstore, where we are informed by the publisher that we must either donate or destroy said damaged items.  I "donated" it to myself to read it this weekend because we've been selling quite a few copies of this book and I wanted to see what it was all about. I will "donate" it back to the store where it will get boxed up with other damaged books to be donated to a local non-profit.


  1. I always feel like I need to talk about how senior year of college, the ceiling of a classroom in the English Building fell in during finals week. Meanwhile the Engineering campus is getting million dollar renovations buuuut anyway.

    Yeah, I'm gonna need a narrative with this sort of thing, but I'm glad it's selling!

    1. oh, that's AWFUL! And *right* in line with what this narrator kept going on about in the novel. Maybe you should write a letter and post it here in the spirit of the book.

  2. This is disappointing cos it seems like a good idea if there had been an actual story beyond "Academic writes snarky letters." Whomp.


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