Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

Dear Committee Members is a clever epistolary novel mainly composed of letters of recommendation written by Jay Fitger, a cynical creative writing professor at Payne University, located somewhere in Minnesota. The letters are mostly hilarious and reveal a lot about Fitger, academia, and the practically of an English degree.

I read Dear Committee Members as part of the 2020 Thoughtful Reading Challenge. October’s challenge is to read a book set on a college campus. I’m glad I chose Dear Committee Members because it was the “smart but light” palate cleanser I needed after reading the disturbing Flyboys last month.

Jay Fitger is a tenured professor whose career as a successful author has floundered. His one successful novel was a thinly disguised story about his experience as an academic, complete with adultery and other sexual hijinks. Needless to say, the people represented in the story were not amused. Turns out that Fitger has a long and accomplished history of alienating the people in his life.

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Frustrated that his writing career has stalled, he aims his creative writing skills at the many letters of recommendation he has to write. In these letters, he manages to insult the people he’s recommending and the schools or businesses they’re applying to. He also weaves in inappropriate content about topics like his past relationships and the poor working conditions caused by the renovations to the English Department offices.

Here’s an example:

“Dear Ted,

You’ve asked me to write a letter seconding the nomination of Franklin Kentrell for Payne’s coveted Davidson chair. I assume Kentrell is behind this request; no sane person would nominate a man whose only recent publications consist of personal genealogical material and who wears visible sock garters in class – all he lacks is a white tin basin to resemble a nineteenth-century barber.”

I think the author must have had a lot of fun writing the letters.

The letters also reveal how difficult it is to for English majors to find work in a related field – Fitger wrote letters to a grocery store and paintball facility for his former students. The devastation of English Departments in favor of funding disciplines like Economics was also a constant theme. And it’s clear that professors spend way too much time writing letters of recommendation.

Although he spent a lot of his energy on snark, by the end we realize that Fitger is actually a pretty decent guy. It takes some skill to develop a character just from the letters he writes and luckily the author was up for the task.

I strongly recommend Dear Committee Members. It’s really funny and, at just 192 pages, a really quick read.

Did you read a book set on a college campus this month? Tell us all about it.

Reminder – November’s challenge is to read a political thriller.

5 thoughts on “Book Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

  1. Michelle,
    Moo by Jane Smiley was thoroughly entertaining-set on a large midwestern land grant university
    Loved Dear Committee…been several years since I’ve read it but I write a lot of reference letters for students so it may warrant a re-read.
    Another collection of short essays you might like is Marjorie Williams The Woman at the Washington Zoo—she wrote a very clever back and forth with her boss or editor that was included in that collection…
    (heads up-it is a posthumous collection—she had terminal cancer and includes insights on trying to enjoy her kids as much as possible) nevertheless a lovely tribute from her husband who shepherded it through publication

    Her wit is razor sharp-I think you would enjoy it if you don’t already know her work!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I’m so glad you reviewed this book – it is one of my favorites. I remember literally laughing out loud at some of the letters! I agree it takes a gifted author to reveal an entire personality (and plot) through the single vehicle of letters of recommendation. And the point that the liberal arts have been disrespected (and defunded) in deference to more “practical” fields of study is well made. Thanks for reminding me of this great book!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I too loved this book and laughed out loud many times! I think my wife got tired of me saying, “Hey, read this page, this is really funny!” What a clever, clever book and an original way of telling a story. Having taught in higher education for a couple years, I think that Schumacher really captured the essence of the academic world and those who live in it. The banter between the English Department and the Economics Department was spot on. She had so many brilliant insights and reminded me of my days teaching at University – letters of recommendation for many students, and mediocre to poor students asking for letters of recommendation as well. Really? After you don’t even come to class? After you didn’t even turn in all of the assignments? You want me to write you a letter of recommendation?! Yup.

    This book was thoroughly enjoyable and an easy, quick read. One of my favorites of this year! Great choice Michelle!

    Liked by 1 person

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