Saturday, August 16, 2014

Dear Committee Members: A Novel by Julie Schumacher (2014)

Jason Fitger is a beleaguered professor of creative writing at Payne University. With an office that is turned into a construction site from which the Economics department has been moved for its safety but the English department left to inhale toxic dust, he seems to spend much of his time writing Letters of Recommendation (LOR) for, it seems, everyone he knows, including past and future students, colleagues, friends and lovers. Dear Committee Members: A Novel is an epistolary tale, telling Jason's story in a series of often funny but always (sometimes brutally) honest LORs. Over the series of letters, we discover that upon graduating, Jason wrote a successful semi-biographical novel based on others he was in school with that he is still dealing with the fall-out from; that he sabotages his own happiness; that he is alternately egotistical, grandoise, self-pitying and amusing; and that he really believes in the benefits that English studies and writing can give to society.

The epistolary novel is an interesting format. My favourite example of this is The Guernsey Potato Peel Pie Society, which I loved loved loved. However, as a novel format does have flaws. If it is written from the point of view of one character (as this novel is), it allows you to really inhabit the mind of the protagonist. This book does that really well and Jason's voice is both strong and believable. The problems with this format come because we are restricted to only one character's point of view and also to the kind of information that would realistically be found in the letter. By the end of the novel, I did get a bit weary of only hearing partial stories: I wanted to know more about the events that were being alluded to! There is also one event that happens at the end of the book that seemed to be dealt with in a somewhat summary manner that I thought deserved a lot more discussion.

Despite those flaws, Dear Committee Members is a funny but scathing indictment of the predicament of the humanities in the modern tertiary marketplace while celebrating the hard work of those who constantly fight to defend the honour of English and champion the students without whom the system would fail. Three and a half stars.

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