There's a strange form of communication we're all familiar with, for better or for worse. It's all about us, but we rarely get to read it.
It's the letter of recommendation.
A new novel by Julie Schumacher is filled with these letters, and nothing but. It's appropriately called Dear Committee Members.
All the letters come from the desk of our curmudgeonly narrator, creative writing professor Jason T. Fitger — who's got no problem telling it like it is when it comes to his students' qualifications, or their job prospects in the current economy.
The book doesn't have much of a plot — it morphs into more of a diatribe about higher education and the sorry life of our narrator. "He's highly inappropriate," Schumacher tells NPR's Audie Cornish. Like Fitger, Schumacher herself is a professor of creative writing. And also like Fitger, she's written reams of recommendation letters. "He is the sort of rageful person who you feel yourself to be, before the superego takes over and tells you, 'Don't say that.' "
On a reviewer's description of Fitger as a "passive-aggressive sexist"
It's interesting, the voice came to me very quickly and I knew it was a main voice. ... I just knew he was an angry traditionalist. I recognized him immediately. And there are, I think, parts of me within him. But I think people would be surprised to think that inside of me lives professor Jay Fitger. My husband said to me when I finished the book, "Are you really this angry?"
On one particularly insulting letter for a female student
She eventually does become very successful. I think he resents her abilities. He's writing letters for her, but begrudgingly. He knows that she's going to make it with or without his help, and so his letters actually provide very little assistance to her.
On Fitger's frustration with the emphasis on the market value of an education
[It's] a frustration I have felt, you know, the emphasis on the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering, math — there's a bit of a feeling of an end of an era in American arts and letters, or at least a sort of time of crisis. We're supposed to have a computer in every kindergarten classroom, but where does that leave the future of literature, foreign languages, theater, you know — we're also just at a point, I think, of educational crisis in terms of the cost of an education. It's a very difficult time right now in higher ed.
AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
There's a strange form of communication that many of us might be familiar with - for better or worse. It's all about us, but we rarely get to read it. It's the letter of recommendation. And a new novel by Julie Schumacher is filled with only these letters. It's appropriately called...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Jason Fitger) "Dear Committee Members."
CORNISH: All the letters come from the desk of our curmudgeonly narrator Jason T. Fitger who we thought might sound something like this...
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Jason Fitger) Let me be candid.
CORNISH: And candid he is.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Jason Fitger) The job market for young employment-seekers is abysmal. Otherwise, Mr. Potton who graduated with a B.A. in English last spring would set his sights considerably higher.
CORNISH: The book doesn't have much of a plot. It morphs into more of a diatribe about the sorry life of our narrator and about the state of higher education.
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (As Jason Fitger) The letter of recommendation has become a rampant, absurdity usurping the place of the quick consultation, a two minute phone call - not to mention the teaching and research that faculty were supposedly hired to perform. I haven't published a novel in six years. Instead, I fill my departmental hours casting words of praise into the bureaucratic abyss.
CORNISH: He's highly inappropriate. That is Julie Schumacher. She created this character. She's professor of creative writing at the University of Minnesota and she's written lots of letters of recommendation herself. Just like professor Fitger.
JULIE SCHUMACHER: He is the sort of rageful person who you feel yourself sometimes to be before the superego takes over and tells you, don't say that.
CORNISH: Now over the course of the book the letters reveal something about the professor's personality, which one reviewer tagged as fitting a certain academic, male stereotype. Which they called the passive-aggressive sexist.
CORNISH: Explain a little bit about this. Not an unusual character in literature. But is this a fair way to describe the way he talks about women?
SCHUMACHER: Well, when I was beginning the book the voice came to me very quickly. And I knew it was a male voice. A friend of mine said to me, why didn't you make this a female main character? And it never dawned on me. I just knew he was an angry traditionalist. I recognized him immediately. And there are, I think, parts of me within him but I think people would be surprised to think that inside me lives Professor J. Fitger. My husband said to me when I finish the book, are you really this angry?
CORNISH: There's one good example. It's a letter for a character who comes up more than one time. She comes to the professor for more than one application because she's applying to law school and medical school and many things. And my favorite line about her, he says, her work is meticulous but not very interesting. Moment of truth. Personally, I don't care for Mizelles (ph) who may be ideally suited to law school. She's obviously brilliant, but I find her off-putting and a bit of a cipher. She has a mind like a bric-a-brac storehouse of facts, a surplus of content put to questionable use. He obviously respects something about her, but it's so buried under a heap of insults. It's hard to imagine.
SCHUMACHER: Yes. And she eventually does become very successful. I think he resents her abilities. He's writing letters for her, but begrudgingly. He knows that she's going to make it with or without his help. And so his letters actually provide very little assistance to her.
CORNISH: Now one thing about this character is he struggles with some of the indignities as a scholar in the humanities. One of his laments throughout the course of the book is how his office is located near the bathrooms and how the department is in the midst of ongoing construction in the building. That's supposed to benefit a more profitable or marketable department economics. Is that something that does feel very real? Where people are very much questioning the value? Quote, unquote "the market value" of an English degree or a humanities degree?
SCHUMACHER: Yeah. I think the frustration that my main character feel is a frustration I have felt. You know, the emphasis on the STEM fields - science, technology, engineering math. There's a bit of a feeling of an end of an era in American arts and letters. Or at least a sort of time of crisis. We're supposed to have a computer in every kindergarten classroom, but where does that leave the future of literature, foreign languages, theater. You know, we're also just at a point I think of educational crisis in terms of the cost of an education. It's a very difficult time right now in higher Ed.
CORNISH: It's funny. Every kind of every profession has its minor bureaucratic hells.
CORNISH: You've managed to make me feel a little bit sheepish and a little bit guilty for the letters that I requested.
SCHUMACHER: Oh, I still request letters from people and I feel guilty all the time. And I do have students who - now that they know about this book come to me somewhat apologetically. And I feel bad about that. Because I do want to advocate for my students who are - most of them - terrific.
CORNISH: Well, like Professor Fitger in your book you still write them. And for that I thank you on behalf of your students.
SCHUMACHER: And you are very welcome.
CORNISH: Julie Schumacher. She's the author of "Dear Committee Members." Thanks so much for speaking with us.
SCHUMACHER: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.