Julie Schumacher admits that she shares a few
characteristics with Jason T. Fitger, the cranky,
boorish professor experiencing a meltdown in her
hilarious epistolary novel "Dear Committee
sort of an evil twin," admits the author, who (like
her character) is a faculty member in a Midwestern
university creative writing program, in her case the
University of Minnesota. "It was scary how quickly
that character came to me."
good news is she’s engaging and significantly saner
than her fictional counterpart, who teaches at the
undistinguished Payne University. In "Dear
Committee Members" (Doubleday, $22.95), presented
as a series of increasingly inappropriate recommendation
letters, Fitger — once a promising novelist — is
crumbling under academic and personal pressures.
on the building in which he works is driving him mad
(the valued economics department was moved out, while
the English department was left to fend for itself amid
the rubble). He’s reaping the emotional consequences
(namely irate exes) of writing a deeply autobiographical
novel. The college is relying more and more on
overworked and underpaid adjuncts, which burdens
full-time faculty further, and the students, buried in
debt, struggle to find jobs after graduation. Worst of
all, Fitger can’t seem to help his prize student land
a fellowship, a job or a quick glance from a publisher.
With each letter he writes, he unravels a little more.
Avengers," one missive reads, "This letter
recommends Mr. Allen Trent for a position at your
paintball emporium. Mr. Trent received a C- is in my
expository writing class last spring which — given my
newly streamlined and increasingly generous grading
criteria — is quite the accomplishment." Things
go steadily downhill from there.
on academia was cathartic "with a capital C,"
Schumacher says, laughing. "My colleagues have been
great about it. There’s one true-to-life incident in
the novel: The building I work in was refurbished, and
the math and IT faculty was moved out. It was cathartic
to write with all that construction going on and the
upper echelon moved out."
the author of the novel "The Body Is Water,"
the story collection "An Explanation for
Chaos" and five novels for young readers,
Schumacher came up with the concept while talking to
students about an exercise in writing stories in
particular forms, such as a to-do list, via emails or a
recipe. When they asked what form she’d write in, she
facetiously replied she’d write a story in the form of
recommendation letters — "which I spend all my
time writing for you," she told them archly.
of my colleagues said, ‘I really hope you’re doing
that,’" she says. "So I set it to myself as
a sort of challenge. As soon as I started playing with
the idea, I knew the character would have to be a huge
mouthy egotist who talks about himself in all the
had never started out with a set structure before, but
the task provided a strange freedom.
was very liberating to start with all these
restrictions," she says. "There were all these
decisions I didn’t have to make. I don’t physically
describe him or anybody. I don’t have to get him from
point A to point B, or get him in his car and get him
home. There’s just the ranting of the letters.
Sometimes you can be writing something and thinking, ‘I
just want to get this guy to California so I can start
the plot! It’s going to take me 20 pages!’ That was
even though Fitger goes too far, Schumacher can’t help
but share some of his ideology.
stuff he really cares about is stuff I care and worry
about a lot," she says. "Adjuncts can’t
afford to live in decent apartments, they work at four
different institutions and drive all over town. Students
are taught in high school by unionized teachers who have
a decent wage and get to college and are taught by
someone who earns 10 percent of what their high school
teachers make. It’s terrible."
Fitger, Schumacher is a bit of a technophobe: "You
see people putting iPads in every kindergarten class. I
say ditch all those and get them another teacher and get
that teacher a living wage."
also gets a bit riled on the subject of M.F.A. writing
programs, which lately have endured a few swipes from
literary critics who seem to believe the programs churn
out only one sort of writer. Schumacher recently wrote a
letter to The New York Times on the subject: "My
own alma mater, Cornell University, granted M.F.A.s in
creative writing to Junot Díaz, Lorrie Moore, Melissa
Bank, NoViolet Bulawayo, Téa Obreht, Stewart O’Nan,
Susan Choi, Diane Ackerman, Melanie Thernstrom and many
others. Cookie-cutter workshop writers? Really?"
one ever says, ‘Thank god that cellist didn’t go to
Juilliard. He should learn the cello in his basement,’"
she says. "People in the arts, most of them,
develop in an atmosphere of feedback and support, and
people find that in M.F.A. programs. That doesn’t mean
everybody should be in one. Some people don’t need or
want it. But they help a lot of people become better
writers. ... You don’t see this attitude with other
art forms, like dance. Or architecture. There’s this
mystique about writers that they’re supposed to suffer
for their art and burst out of nowhere after waiting
tables or driving a cab. It’s a romantic attachment to
the lonely alcoholic genius. They want everybody to be
Edgar Allan Poe. ... People feel if you attend an M.F.A.
program you will be a published writer, but that’s not
the case. Maybe you’ll just be a better writer. And if
that’s a terrible outcome, sue me!"
pauses, well aware of her Fitger-esque rant, and
really pushed my buttons," she says.