Monday, January 12, 2015

Epistolary Problems

Jay Fitger, from Julie Schumacher’s one-sided epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members, is a very stuck English professor.  Schumacher’s novel is funny and smart but also painful and disturbing, because some academics will see themselves in Fitger and his frustrations. I really noticed the fixedness of this character, mired in the flux of academia, while he fights hard to preserve it.  Through Fitger, Schumacher dissects many current issues in contemporary academia:  economic problems, especially for those of us in the humanities; student under-achievement; careerism; tension with administration, etc.  But the novel’s real interest is in Fitger, who is finally a pretty blunt and annoying guy, even when he’s at his funniest.

Let me focus on the form.  Fitger, professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University (note the ironic pun here, which Fitger brings to our attention), writes a lot of letters, most of them letters of reference, hence the novel’s title.  Some, however, are just old-fashioned correspondence to colleagues, the kind most of us seldom send anymore.  Fitger, in fact, is an academic anachronism, very staunch in his views of literary academia, always backward looking. He’s egotistical and defiant, and it’s not surprising that we never read anyone’s response to his more personal missives.  Even in his letters of reference, he reverts to talking about himself, particularly his now long-past graduate school experience and his failed love life.  The epistolary form normally assumes a reader, but it’s likely that Fitger’s most pompous and self-indulgent letters go unread, especially when he resists electronic communication. What Schumacher does with this genre is masterful, particularly when epistolary novels themselves are rather old-fashioned.

Schumacher’s craft is in fashioning Fitger’s amusing voice through each letter over the course of a year, and virtually each letter amounts to the loss of an ideal for higher education.  This is a loss of which we readers in academia are always fearful, especially given our current economics and politics.  Yet, Fitger’s solipsistic diatribes are pathetic, at their worst, because higher education is always changing.  The novel concludes with Fitger agreeing to become department chair.  It’s hard to see him as successful in this role, but Schumacher leaves that question for us to ponder.

I heartily recommend Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members to my friends in academia.

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