I’ve been trying to process and decide how I feel about this book and I don’t think I’m going to be able to without just hurling out all the thoughts and sorting along the way.
Dear Committee Members is an epistolary novel which means it’s told through writing between characters e.g. diary entries, text conversations, and in this case letters. We only see writing from one character which was an interesting move for the author to make. In the past with my admittedly limited experience in reading epistolary works there are usually multiple people writing but in this book we only read the words of Jay Fitger, professor of english at the fictional Payne University.
Throughout the book which is fairly short we learn that Fitger has two ex-wives and an ex-girlfriend (exes because of cheating and publishing a novel which blatantly documents at least one affair because he is a Class Act), is a tenured professor, had middling success as an author and bounces between self-deprecation and indignation because of this, and is tired of writing letters of recommendation but does not hesitate to do so if only to try and impress on the poor HR person destined to get them that he is Too Clever and Biting to put up with any Professionalism. He is also focused on aiding a post-grad in finding an editor for his work in progress which is a retelling of Bartleby the Scrivener (of course it’s Melville #straightwhitedead) and Fitger has proclaimed it the best goddamn thing to touch the written world since probably Hemingway.
I chose this book for the Book Riot Read Harder Challenge because it’s epistolary, it’s incredibly short, and the tagline is “finally putting the pissed back into epistolary.” I expected to read a professor in his battle against the financial powers that be who pull money from english funding and put it towards other fields, in this case Economics which surprised me because I often think of STEM as the natural opponent to the Arts. In any case what I ended up reading was the ranting of a man so insufferable I nearly googled the closest Economics focused university to pledge a donation. I also began wondering about the value of literature in academia.
The fact that this book raises that question is really uncomfortable for me. I have always defended the arts and my bachelor’s in english. I do believe that the world needs art and literature and that these things can change the world. However, I also feel that the culture of Academia surrounding literature is not one that I would mourn losing. I would say that the elitism and pedantry of some in the Literary community is a defensive reaction to those who criticize or dismiss it, but there have been book snobs longer than there have been books. Does the world need a Bartleby the Scrivener retelling? Especially one that the protagonist later admits is not as genius as he’s been trying to proclaim but actually very rough, possibly even bad, but something he wanted to succeed so terribly because the boy himself was like a mirror to his younger years? Does wanting something to be important make it important in the long run?
I still don’t know. And I might be overthinking it because most of the reviews for this book reference its humor. I could see where it was supposed to be but I was so busy hating this character and wanting him to shut up it didn’t translate for me. And ultimately I don’t believe this book was written for me, someone who has long left behind literature in the academic context and now reads books for leisure. But that does not mean that this book was poorly written or that it might not be written for you. It’s one that I may revisit in the future but for now I’m very glad it’s done.
Trigger Warning: a character dies by suicide though it is not explicitly described