I can’t remember the last epistolary novel I read though one of my claims to fame (if you can call it that) is having plowed through to the end of the unabridged edition of Clarissa in my undergraduate 18th century novel class—something I don’t recommend. That particular novel of letters resembled a phone book, so in contrast, Dear Committee Members is refreshingly brief—almost too brief. I would have happily read more. Though readers from any occupation might find this book funny, I think it will especially connect with anyone who has worked in or near an English department.
This is the story of a jaded and aging creative writing professor, Jay Fitger, told through a series of letters, mostly letters of recommendation, that Fitger writes over the course of a year. There are a number of reoccurring themes including the fact that Fitger has not published a successful novel in many years, that the English department has not only been gutted financially but the space they reside in is a construction zone but solely for the economics department a floor above them, and that Fitger’s attempts to find funding for a “promising” graduate student are singularly unsuccessful. The humor here arises in part because Fitger writes wonderfully honest letters—whether he’s recommending an undergraduate student for a job at Avenger’s Paintball or writing a letter for the anti-social IT guy who supports (or rather doesn’t support) the English department.
The bar for academic satire has been set pretty high for me by Richard Russo’s novel, Straight Man, but this slight book works because it’s both a skewering and a love song to that particular brand of academia found in some university English departments. As a community college composition teacher in a very different English department, I can laugh from a safe distance.