FICTION: A beleaguered English professor spills the details of his life in a variety of letters.
If you are thinking about asking someone like Jason Fitger to write you a letter of recommendation, consider whether it’s in your best interest. The fictional professor of English and creative writing at the center of Julie Schumacher’s endearingly funny “Dear Committee Members” always tells the truth — no matter how painful.
Schumacher, on the faculty of the Creative Writing Program at the University of Minnesota, pokes fun at the long-standing tradition of professors writing letters of recommendation — affectionately referred to as LORs. The beleaguered Fitger laments that he’s written more than 1,300 LORs over the course of his long career: “The LOR has become a rampant absurdity,” he writes in one letter. “I haven’t published a novel in six years; instead, I fill my departmental hours casting words of praise into the bureaucratic abyss.”
Unlike a fellow LOR writer at the far-from-first-tier, fictional Payne University, who “wrests fleeting moments of joy from the opportunity to denigrate” students in LORs, Fitger is willing and able to write a glowing LOR, but be careful what you wish for.
Told through a collection of these painfully honest and hysterically funny letters, “Dear Committee Members” perfectly captures the plight of today’s job-challenged college graduates. The pursuers of Fitger’s LORs are seeking work at literary agencies and the halls of higher learning as well as paintball emporiums, grocery stores and day care centers. And Fitger tries to help with honest assessments of their capabilities. The subject of one LOR, he writes, has “bona fide thoughts and knows how to apportion them into relatively grammatical sentences.” Another, he says, writes prose “at one moment profoundly spare, the next moment rococo … it’s like nothing you’ve ever seen.”
Fitger refers to himself in these letters as an author, provocateur and hazardous materials specialist — the latter because of ongoing renovations of the English department. (“We are inhaling more dust over here in Willard Hall than an average coal miner — please send a backup supply of medical masks ASAP.”) And when the need arises, he’s a man with a mission using the power of the LOR to help talented young writers in need of a break, co-workers desperate for higher salaries and as a way to initiate a reconciliation with his ex-wife.
Each letter Fitger writes is imbued with the wisdom and comic chops that make Schumacher a wonderfully entertaining writer. Let this review serve as an LOR for “Dear Committee Members.” If there’s one thing new grads need in addition to the congratulatory check or gift card, it’s a few good laughs before reality sets in.
Carol Memmott’s reviews also appear in the Chicago Tribune and the Washington Post.