Friday, August 22nd, 2014

The Fall of the Humanities and the Tyranny of Recommendation Letters: A Novel and a Chat

porcDear Committee Members is the second novel from PEN/Hemingway award finalist and creative writing professor Julie Schumacher. Written entirely in the form of letters of recommendation, the novel relays the academic trials and tribulations of Jason Fitger, a floundering novelist, creative writing professor and self-proclaimed "dinosaur" in the rapidly changing landscape of liberal arts education. At a time when literature departments are in danger of extinction and bureaucrats wield unprecedented power over university funds, Fitger aspires to speak truth to power through his rambling, disjointed, and cranky letters of recommendation. The best use for these letters, he believes, is not to praise his misguided students and colleagues but to show his readers just how broken our system of higher education really is. Dear Committee Members is a novel propelled by Fitger’s relentless frustration.

Reader, we read it. And now we’re here to talk about it.

Merve Emre: Jess, in January, Julie Schumacher wrote a piece in The Chronicle of Higher Education in which she bemoaned the letter of recommendation—heretofore, the LOR. "Most letters of reference, as pieces of writing, are awfully dull," she complained, and proceeded to explain why. They're repetitive. They’re overly enthusiastic—suspiciously so. They’re impossible to distinguish from one another. They leave their readers exhausted, annoyed, and bleary-eyed, or entangle them in ugly calculations of institutional prestige. (What "counts" for more? A letter from an adjunct professor at an Ivy League or the chair of a third-tier English department?) Given Schumacher’s antipathy towards the genre and its conventions, it seems like she's set a very high bar for herself in structuring an entire novel around the very form she decries.

Jessica Gross: Yes, she has. Several themes emerge early in the book and are hit upon repeatedly in the letters that follow. There's the explicit theme of detesting writing LORs—Fitger echoes Schumacher's concerns here, sometimes in the same language she used in the Chronicle piece. Here she is in the piece: "Evidence of the letter-of-rec’s increasing absurdity: While serving on award committees here at Minnesota, I have on more than one occasion opened an e-file and discovered that—in lauding a student or a colleague—I had written a letter to myself." And in the novel, as Fitger: "The LOR has become a rampant absurdity, usurping the place of the quick consultation and the two-minute phone call…On multiple occasions, serving on awards committees, I was actually required to write LORs myself."

The LORs allow Fitger to lament the underfunding and general lack of support for the humanities and the comparative favoritism toward the social and hard sciences (in this book, the favorite-child scapegoat becomes economics). The fictional Payne University’s English department is under construction, and the poor professors have to work there anyway: "we are living in a Brave New Department, in a building half of which has been cordoned off with tape as a hazardous zone." There's the dwindling respect for the importance of the arts, in general. Schumacher hits each of these themes over and over again in her letters, which at once successfully mimics the repetitiveness of LORs—Fitger is, after all, conveying these concerns to different people each time—and becomes quite tiresome. Toward the end of the book, I started writing margin notes like, "We get it!" How'd it work for you?

ME: On the one hand, I appreciate and admire the formal limitations Schumacher has set for herself. I enjoy novels that experiment with narrative structure, particularly ones that co-opt the structure of whatever it is they're critiquing—in this case, the slow and costly metastasis of administrative bureaucracies in higher education—for some kind of aesthetic project. But when the form you've chosen for your novel is—by your own account—vacuous, dull, and encourages readers to skim, skip, or abandon reading altogether, there needs to be some kind of counterbalance to the genre’s constraints.

For me, neither the prose nor the character development of the narrator, Jason Fitger, really counteracts the novel’s flatness; its repetitive patterns ultimately hollow out first its satire, then its claims to realism. There is the "incessant dripping" from a burst pipe whose splashes underscore the English Department’s sad, soggy situation. There is a "blue mailbox…emphatic in the new-fallen snow" with a "quaint rectangular mouth" where Fitger routinely deposits his letters so as to eschew the impersonality of email forms. And, of course, there are the stingy department chairs, the lecherous tenured faculty, and the technocracy’s "unsocialized clones," all of who are made to account for their sins at the end of each letter.

I, for one, have never found the shrill rhetoric of the current "crisis in the humanities" historically accurate or emotionally persuasive. (Disclaimer: If you like Rebecca Schuman's writing, you will probably like this book.) Nor do I find much depth in Fitger's ethical pleas throughout the novel for how "the reading and writing of fiction both requires and instills empathy." By putting these words in Fitger’s mouth, Schumacher seems to want her fiction to perform the kind of ethical work that Fitger wants to claim for fiction at large. Unfortunately, the prose simply can’t carry the weight of the novel’s ethical ambitions. (However controversial or disputed they may be.)

Like the committee members who read LORs, I found my eyes darting from paragraph to paragraph for some lovely image, some veiled warning, some scintillating gossip—something, anything to break the monotony of reading this novel.

JG: I hear you! An added difficulty is that Schumacher chose to interweave the letters to and about characters that persist throughout the novel (Fitger's ex-wife, several people they attended Seminar with in their youth, his ex-girlfriend, and his sole graduate student) with one-off LORs about random students. If this book is simply an argument against "the never-ending battle" to fulfill LOR requests, the onslaught made sense; but as a novel, I found the constant introduction of new characters who would disappear a page later to be overwhelming and ineffective, especially since these letters simply reinforced layers of Fitger's persona and stance that we already knew.

On a broader level, it's challenging to have a novel entirely composed of one person's letters, period. Often, background information included for the reader's benefit felt awkward or forced in the context of a letter. Not to mention that this is a first-person point of view in a straitjacket. I found myself wishing repeatedly for reply letters, even as I heard the counter-cry, "Consider the book on its own terms!" It's the kind of thing that could work if the narrator could carry it. Fitger’s character becomes more compelling in the second half of the book—he has moments of reflection about his relationships, himself, his mortality—but not enough to carry the novel.


ME: It raises the question: what does it take to be compelled by a narrator who you find unreliable, unlikeable, or morally questionable? This question has often haunted the (mostly male) narrators of campus novel, from Humbert Humbert in Lolita to the unnamed narrator in Randall Jarrell's Pictures from an Institution to William Henry Devereaux Jr. in Straight Man. Schumacher certainly does not trade in the "fancy prose style" that enables a narrator like Humbert Humbert to seduce us. (Jess, you already pointed out that her prose style reads like a barely exaggerated version of her letter to the Chronicle.) And her satire lacks the subtlety to be truly, incisively funny. (One of the running gags in the novel is that Fitger signs his letters with such ludicrous titles as "Jay Fitger, Winner’s Circle.") Lucky Jim, Trading Places, Groves of Acadame, and Wonder Boys are all campus novels I’d tap as sharper, wittier predecessors to Dear Committee Members.

Perhaps the most intriguing parts of the novel for me were the descriptions of other people's books embedded in Fitger's LORs. His troubled protégée, Darren Browles, is rewriting Herman Melville’s short story "Bartleby the Scrivener" as a novel, one that takes place in a Vegas brothel. (Mat Johnson could write this book and it would be brilliant.) Another student of Fitger’s, the much-maligned Vivian Zelles, lands a six-figure book deal for a fictionalized memoir, in which a young woman metamorphoses into a cheetah and, in a fit of rage, eats and excretes her little brother whole. Finally, an experimental novel written by a friend of Fitger's from his days in an Iowa-style writing workshop gets rave reviews from William Gass in The New York Review of Books. Now, that’s a book I want to read.

JG: Ha! I can’t say I’m drawn to the cheetah/cannibalization narrative, but hey. To your first point: amen. I found myself irritated that I had to hang out with Fitger for the duration of the novel—which, of course, brought to mind last year's debate about "likeable" characters in the wake of Claire Messud's Publisher's Weekly interview. I wondered if I just didn't like Fitger. If so, was that some failing on my part—a desire, as Messud and many others have railed against, for a character I'd want to befriend? Or was it really a desire for a character compelling enough that I felt invested in what happened to him, i.e., I cared whether he lived or died? (Hard to feel invested in a character’s larger ethical project if you’re not invested in his individual fate.) I wonder whether the conversation about "likeability" has oversimplified this impulse, conflating a desire for well-developed characters with that for pleasant ones. Related: Rebecca Mead’s recent New Yorker piece on "the scourge of ‘relatability.’"

ME: Relatable is just a detestable word. It's so utterly narcissistic; how does this relate to me? Why should it? And it simply doesn't say enough about the actual quality of prose. (Dear students: please never use the word "relatable" to describe a character or book.) As for Fitger, I wouldn't read too much into the weak feeling of "liking" or "not liking" a character, which strikes me as equally underspecified. I think it's enough to say that Fitger is of a piece with the letters he's writing: one-dimensional, repetitive, and banal.

JG: To come back to something we touched on earlier: this felt very much to me like a book with a mission. (Also, possibly, as wish fulfillment on the part of an author who can’t be this forthright in her own LORs.) In general, I’m very wary of a novel whose mission shines more brightly than its story. But, in truth, as a non-academic, I wouldn't have come across Schumacher's letter, or the issue of LORs, at all if not for this book. So, a few questions for you: Is that worth anything? And, since you're in academia, (a) what has your experience with LORs been like, and (b) what's your larger stance on their prevalence and on the state of support/funding for the humanities?

ME: This year, I wrote twenty LORs for many different kinds of students: students who wanted internships in finance, students seeking employment at art museums or publishing houses, students applying to graduate school and fellowship programs. It's nowhere near as many as Schumacher writes—50 to 100 each year, which she suggests is normal—so perhaps I have a different kind of affective relationship to the genre by virtue of the numbers alone. Which is only to say, maybe I haven’t written enough LORs to be sufficiently cynical about their purpose.

It's a responsibility that I don't take lightly. At times, it's one that I have refused to take on, when I don’t think a student would be best served by my opinion of him or her. And I think, like a lot of good writing, the LOR is a genre that is best served by telling a rich, detailed story about an individual's passion and promise. Finally, and perhaps I'm being sentimental here—I know I’m being sentimental here—but I’ve ended some letters by observing that the student in question seems to have a good heart. That should matter.

As for the humanities, there are so many other problems looming over higher education that Schumacher rightly and persistently points out. Freedom of speech, casual labor, the ballooning costs of college, a lack of diverse perspectives in education and education policy, sexual assault—the list goes on and on and on. Letters of recommendation strike me a very small issue to which to devote this much time or attention. But then again, that’s not really the point of the novel. It’s just the dissatisfying way in which it’s realized.

Merve Emre is an editor at the Los Angeles Review of Books and a doctoral candidate at Yale University. Jessica Gross is a freelance writer for The New York Times Magazine, The Paris Review Daily, and elsewhere.

Top photo by Heidi Schuyt

3 Comments / Post A Comment

eizverson22 (#277,962)

This novel body is rare. Interesting.

Ralph Haygood (#13,154)

Once upon a time, I was a postdoc who decided not to become an ass prof, for a number of reasons including the realization that if I did, my colleagues would undoubtedly consider me a loose cannon because, for example, I would refuse to pay the slightest attention to letters of recommendation (on behalf of prospective grad students, faculty members, etc.). I'm a biologist, but rest assured, they're generally as absurd and tedious in the sciences as in the humanities.

Post a Comment