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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Dear Committee Members

Julie Schumacher

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To purchase Dear Committee Members

Title: Dear Committee Members
Author: Julie Schumacher
Genre: Novel
Written: 2014
Length: 180 pages
Availability: Dear Committee Members - US
Dear Committee Members - UK
Dear Committee Members - Canada
Dear Committee Members - India

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Our Assessment:

B : some decent chuckles, but too tame

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The Independent . 7/11/2014 Lucy Scholes
The NY Times Book Rev. A 2/11/2014 Brock Clarke
San Francisco Chronicle . 28/8/2014 David Wiegand
Wall St. Journal . 22/8/2014 Sam Sacks
The Washington Post . 9/9/2014 Michael Lindgren

  From the Reviews:
  • "Schumacher manipulates the epistolary genre to great effect as Fitger’s caustic, passive-aggressive missives chronicle an academic year." - Lucy Scholes, The Independent

  • "Brock Clarke (.....) Schumacher also brilliantly uses the epistolary form to show Jay’s desperation in the face of his crumbling university, career, life." - Brock Clarke, The New York Times Book Review

  • "As he writes to recommend others, a portrait inevitably emerges of Fitger himself, like something created from invisible ink and then made visible when the page is warmed over a flame." - David Wiegand, San Francisco Chronicle

  • "If you are looking for a witty, original cri de coeur over the oft-lamented decline of the humanities, I urgently recommend this novel." - Sam Sacks, Wall Street Journal

  • "What gives the novel its kick is that the indignities visited on Fitger, from decrepit facilities to a general sense of cultural besiegement, are all too familiar to anyone even remotely familiar with recent developments in higher education." - Michael Lindgren, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel, but not one of real correspondence: the mail-traffic is strictly one-way, as readers only get to see Jason Fitger's missives. Dear Committee Members is also a campus/academic novel, as Fitger is a professor in the English Department at the fictional Payne University (not to be confused with Howard Payne University), and the novel covers, more or less, an academic-year-in-the-life of Fitger, in letters -- practically all of them, in some form or another, the dreaded 'Letters of Recommendation' (LORs) supporting current and former students, colleagues, and friends in their applications for various forms of employment, specific faculty positions, and the occasional fellowship and the like.
       Fitger is -- or was -- a writer, bursting on the scene decades ago with Stain, a fictionalized novel of his own writing-program mentor and 'the Seminar'. He followed that up with two duds -- "But what did I know about cold war defectors and their families, or about NASA in the 1960s ?" he admits regarding his poorly-chosen subject matter -- and then with Transfer of Affection, featuring again his alter ego from Stain in another thinly-veiled personal account. Too thinly veiled, apparently, with his protagonist's: "romantic blunders hinting too clearly at a few of my own", which his wife of the time did not take kindly to. Fitger is a 'Professor of Creative Writing and English', but for years now the only creative writing he seems to have managed are those letters of recommendation -- he keeps count, and notes he's written more than 1300 by now.
       One-sided as the narrative is -- consisting only of Fitger's letters -- it is, essentially, a monologue. Spaced out over the course of a year. Without any real back and forth there's little sense of an exchange of information or ideas, and Fitger is only occasionally specifically responsive to events, so one only gets a limited sense of what is happening with and around him. Nevertheless, it's no mere collection of letters Schumacher presents, as she does create (or impose) an adequate story arc on her novel.
       Several story-lines of sorts do emerge, from Fitger's relationships with the women he has been involved with to the decline of the English Department at Payne (while the Economics department flourishes). There's also one student Fitger is particularly interested in and goes out of his way to help, the struggling Darren Browles, whose work-in-progress -- "a retelling of Melville's Bartleby" (but in which the eponymous character is hired to keep the books at a brothel, circa 1960, just outside Las Vegas)" -- Fitger believes shows great promise. He does everything he can to get Browles a fellowship, an agent, a work-study position, anything to help the kid out -- but with little success.
       Meanwhile, Fitger also writes dozens of other LORs. He's often amusing in his forthrightness, and in describing his students' work offers many examples of the horrible ideas creative writing students come up with; Fitger's assessments are sometimes blunt but not cruel, and almost invariably in some way supportive. He's also a realist about LORs and complains about the often pointless exercise he's forced to go through. (He also has a hard time filling out online recommendation forms, which Schumacher has good fun with.)
       Fitger doesn't always stick to the topic at hand; after all, he thinks, if he already has someone's ear or attention why not take advantage of that situation:

I have a few other things on my mind also, and it would be foolish of me, I think -- it would be remiss -- if I didn't take this opportunity to address a few of them.
       And so there are constant complaints about the ill-treatment of the English Department -- withering by neglect, housed in what becomes practically a construction site much of the year, and with a chair of the department who is a sociologist --, some nostalgia about his failed marriage and relationships, and even the occasional editorializing, as when he complains about another university's MFA program, to which one his students is applying, that it's: "an unconscionable act of piracy and a grotesque, systemic abuse of vulnerable students" to demand an outrageous tuition and provide no funding for students.
       The LORs aren't all LOL, but Schumacher has enough wit and style to craft a whole series of amusing variations -- the absurdity of some of the applications (which include one student looking for part-time work at the local winemart) adding to the fun. Ultimately, there's also a poignant turn, underlining the futility of Fitger's efforts even at their most sincere, and that also nudges Fitger towards some character-growth as, facing the next academic year, he seems to have matured and now has a better sense of himself and his role(s) at the university.
       The LORs are a lot of fun but Schumacher keeps the humor in check, always pulling back from true absurdity: Fitger's LORs aren't 'real' -- most are just a bit too forthright -- but they're near enough that it seems almost plausible someone would write such things. So Schumacher is careful to avoid going all the way to farce, as she holds Dear Committee Members back from becoming an entirely comic book. Instead, with her poignant turn and Fitger's maturation-process she tries to add weight to her story -- to middling effect. It feels a bit too forced and neat. Indeed, it gives the novel the feel of a creative-writing-program-product, carefully mapped out and neatly brought to it's very simple conclusion.
       Like the creative writing teacher that she (and Fitger) are, Schumacher apparently believes in writing what she knows. It's not surprising that she has Fitger find the greatest success with his romans à clef -- even if the second isn't a commercial success, it's the one he's proudest of (it's "more sophisticated, more nuanced, smarter") --, while the two novels on subjects he is unfamiliar with were duds; presumably she expects writers to do best when they stick to what they know. (Hence also the lesson of Fitger's students: Browles and his batty Bartleby-concept-book get nowhere, while Fitger's agent gets a six-figure advance for for another student's "pseudo-autobiography in which the speaker portrays herself as a fifteen-year-old girl/cheetah amalgam".) Schumacher's novel drips of a similar specific kind of knowingness, years spent in that peculiar part of academia that is the 'creative writing program'. So, sure, her LORs (and her descriptions of the kids' writing projects) have that feel of authenticity -- exagerrated though Fitger's are, they ring all too true at heart -- and the humor hits home. But this also feels terrible limiting, a re-treading of the safest ground, for gentle laughs.
       Dear Committee Members is a riskless novel as a whole -- yes, choosing the epistolary form does not count as 'risky'; or rather, that's about as big a risk as Schumacher is willing to take, and, given her writing facility (yes, she's good), one that barely troubles the reader one way or another. This novel feels awfully safe and tame: an accomplished writing-school-exercise that's certainly enjoyable enough but little more.

- M.A.Orthofer, 17 September 2014

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Dear Committee Members: Reviews: Julie Schumacher: Other books of interest under review:
  • See Index of Contemporary American fiction

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About the Author:

       American author Julie Schumacher was born in 1958.

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© 2014 the complete review

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