Now here’s a book you can knock off in a few hours and have a great deal of fun while doing so. H spotted it before I did which must be a first given that it’s a novel. He was chortling so much at a review that I felt I had to read the book. Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members is made up of letters from the office of Jason T. Fitger, long-suffering Professor of Creative Writing and English at Payne University, and he’s had enough.
Fitger is currently under siege, writing from his office in the crumbling English department while the Economics bods are having their offices renovated upstairs. Noxious liquids leak through from the toilet above, he has to enter the building through a basement, his window won’t close allowing toxic fumes into his office and that’s just the start of it. He spends an inordinate amount of time writing letters of recommendation – he’s written around thirteen hundred in all – some to other academic institutions, others to a supermarket, a nut emporium and a paintball establishment to name but a few. Interspersed are a multitude of pleas for funding for his advisee Darren Browles, often addressed to his two exes who also work at Payne. Browles is close to the end of his retelling of Melville’s Bartleby in which the titular hero is employed as an accountant in a brothel and Fitger’s convinced it’s a work of genius. Threads of Fitger’s past run through the letters: professional repercussions from old affairs; his sojourn at the notorious Seminar writing workshop; his early flash of literary success and his incontinent use of his personal life as material for his novels.
Schumacher’s book is very funny indeed, all the more so for academics, I’m sure, but anyone who’s brushed up against obdurate bureaucracy (haven’t we all) will find themselves sniggering. Even as a bystander on the sidelines of academic life, I winced in recognition at some of it: ‘those already serving in the killing fields of administration’ rang a particularly loud bell. Fitger’s early letters often start in emollient tones but exasperated barbs are soon aimed at students who barely know him but want a reference; at the philistines bent on cutting English departmental funding even further and at the recipients of funding largesse, usually the economists. Beneath all this waspishness beats a kind heart: Fitger tirelessly promotes Darren Browles; entreats his exes to look kindly on deserving students looking for work or funding; hopes in some small way to help his talented friend, hit by tragedy. There are some nice little digs at IT along the way, both at Fitger’s ineptitude – an unfortunate use of the ‘reply all’ function – and help desks who seem hell-bent on doing the opposite. Unsurprisingly, Schumacher turns out to be an academic. I wonder if she was getting a few things off her chest.
I’m sure you’ve all spotted the Baileys Prize longlist by now but just in case here it is. Quite a few surprises on it which, of course, makes it all the more interesting. Only two from my wishlist popped up – Anne Tyler’s A Spool of Blue Thread and Kamila Shamsie’s A God in Every Stone – but I have reviewed these four as well: Patricia Ferguson’s Aren’t We Sisters?, Heather O’Neill’s The Girl Who Was Saturday Night, Emma Healey’s Elizabeth is Missing and Xiaolu Guo’s I Am China. Naomi, along with several other eager readers, is shadowing the list over at The Writes of Women.