Monday, November 9, 2015

Review: Dear Committee Members by Julie Schumacher

It's hard to be funny. Sense of humor is such a personal thing and what tickles one person's funny bone will leave another one cold. But I think everyone can agree that the depths of bureaucracy is ripe for entertainment; it's either laugh at the absurdity or cry. Julie Schumacher's slight but delightful epistolary novel, Dear Committee Members, the winner of the 2015 Thurber Prize for American Humor, set in one of the most bureaucratic places you can find outside of government itself, academia, is truly humorous and if you don't find it funny, well, there may not be hope for you.

Jason Fitger is an English and Creative Writing professor at a small liberal arts college in Minnesota. He's written four increasingly poorly received novels, both his marriage and his affair have ended badly, and he's alienated most everyone who used to have some sympathy for him. He's cantankerous and crotchety but he's still being asked to write letters of recommendation and reference for students, fellow faculty members, and others in his life. His letters and emails illuminate his own life, relationships, and frustrations as well as, if not better than, the lives of those he's meant to be recommending. In these letters, he vents his passive aggressive outrage at the worlds of academia and writing. He comes across as truly unconscious of his effect on women and baffled by their reactions to his and his narcissistic sexism. The letters are full of personal digressions and petty complaints about the state of the English department and its relative importance on campus; they rail against bureaucracy and lament his failed marriage. He is pompous and pretentious as only spurned and unsuccessful college professors can be. He's refreshingly honest about the capabilities of the subjects of his letters, or at least their capabilities in his eyes, and brutal about his opinions of the jobs for which they are applying. The letters are addressed to a wide variety of recipients within Payne University as well as outside of the collegiate world.  One can only imagine the horror and magic of receiving one of Fitger's letters.

As terrifyingly awful as he and his letters sound (and he is nothing if not prickly and sarcastic), the novel is hilarious. As the school year progresses, his letters become more expansive and increasingly honest. It is clear that they are unintentionally funny and Schumacher does a brilliant job drawing Fitger as completely oblivious to this embedded humor. She's captured the absurdity of academia, the weariness of feeling unappreciated, and the sheer determination to remain relevant and to continue to champion his favorites in this obdurate and opinionated character. He may be a miserable and small human being but he's got a dry wit and he's not going to fade into tweedy obscurity quietly. The crowning achievement of this wonderful, often spot on, satire is the fact that Fitger so long a character of derision for the reader, becomes wholly human, sympathetic, and finally able to look outside of himself at others by the end of the tale. His renewed appreciation for the people around him and life with all its attendant annoyances is nothing short of miraculous. Intelligent entertainment, a skewering of academia, and full of outsized snark, this was a pure pleasure to read.


  1. This sounds AWESOME! I love any book that skewers the absurdities of bureaucracies!

  2. I'm ripe to read this one. Just added it to my wishlist so I won't forget again because academic bureaucracy is my daily reality and it's CRAY.

  3. I need to read this. I like this kind of humor!


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