Dear Committee Members
by Julie Schumacher
2014 • 192 pages • Doubleday
When we talk about well-rounded female characters, we often talk about allowing female characters to be unlikable. (Hell, we also talk about allowing female characters to look like actual human type women, which is such a broad category that it’s really amazing how often the mark is missed.) Even when female characters express unlikable traits (which, let’s be honest, are often considerable desirable or at least neutral traits in male characters), they’re often punished for it, by both the narrative and the audience. As much as I’ve been enjoying How Did This Get Made, their episode on A View to a Kill features the whole crew comparing Grace Jones’ superhumanly strong May Day to a shaved horse. It’s why Amy in Gone Girl is such polarizing; she may be, in a certain slant of light, a misogynist’s hysterical nightmare, but she gets to be selfish, hateful, cruel, violent, and dispassionate in a way few female characters are. (And the crowning glory: she gets away with it.)
But there is a B side to that argument, much shorter than the much more important single: why do we allow male characters to be unlikable? Specifically, why am I so often asked to sympathize with, idealize, or otherwise just plain tolerate male characters whose behavior is self-indulgent, passively cruel, and generally awful without any redeeming characteristics? I am fine with unlikable male characters in the abstract. I am, after all, quite an active fan of James Bond, the last three films of which franchise have been entirely about an already unstable man being built into a horrifically amoral monster. (And it’s so, so great.) Unlikable characters, as we’ve established, can be riveting and revelatory. What I’m taking issue with is when I am presented with unlikable male characters and told, by both the text and paratext, that I should like him.
Case in point: Jason “Jay” Fitger, the professor protagonist of Julie Schumacher’s Dear Committee Members. Jay is a professor of English at a small college. His department is rapidly losing funding, his Great American Novel is out of print, and nobody wants to hire his protégé, whom he’s convinced is a genius. The mountains of recommendation letters he has to write about colleagues, students, and passing acquaintances has driven him over the edge, and he can’t help but air his dirty laundry. He snarks through the letters of students who failed in class but hound him for help afterwards; constantly writes letters badgering every last contact to take in his protégé; and writes his ex-wives and ex-girlfriend alternately pointed and apologetic letters.
There’s something to be said for translating the dread recommendation letter into an epistolary novel, but Dear Committee Members has a problem with tone. If this is meant to be a black comedy with an unhinged and uninhibited protagonist, like most academic satire, then why are we asked to sympathize with him? For instance, at the end, when he ponders the work of a peer: “And whatever he had written was un-fucking-believable, we’d reread it later with our mouths half open because he was so brilliant, his work so staggering, he made you want to run your fingers through a table saw and never pick up a pencil again” (116) The man Jay blossoms into (or reveals himself to be) at the end of the novel—an elegiac, regretful, and self-centered person cursed by having just enough vision to see his shortcomings—is a fascinatingly unlikable character. But the novel spends so much time delighting in his casual, passive-aggressive cruelty that it’s difficult to stomach. (He constantly addresses one of his ex-wives with the surname they shared while married and not her current name.) I suppose that’s the point: the humor is derived from the way he warps the generic recommendation letter to his selfish means and extends his own heroically persecuted narrative. And I find that that kind of humor punches down—which is always the wrong way.
The reason I’ve made it my mission to read more diverse writers this year in a documented, systematic way is because I want to see other worldviews, especially worldviews that don’t passively reinforce a lot of toxic narratives in our culture. While I do hold straight white dude authors to the same standard (and I have seen them succeed!), it’s, frankly, easier and much better for my reading diet this way. But non-straight white dudes are often encouraged to perpetuate those narratives, because they are positively reinforced by our society. So I think I got lulled into a sense of security by the idea that picking up a book by a woman would inherently combat, negate, or just not engage with that perspective.
Of course, I am not speaking to the author’s experience. I don’t know her from Eve, she does not owe me an explanation of her work, or the context in which it is written. I’m a fan, which means I’m a Barthesian, which means that the text is the thing and the only thing. And I am tired of these kind of texts.
I rented this book from the public library.