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To Whom It May Concern

Padgett Powell breathes life into that least promising of literary forms: the letter of recommendation

To Whom It May Concern:

I am writing to recommend to you a novel by Julie Schumacher with the marvelous title Dear Committee Members.

This is an entertaining epistolary novel made up entirely of that least promising of forms, letters of recommendation. The sender of these letters is Jason Fitger, a cantankerous professor of creative writing. He belongs to a recognizable type: an early book he wrote met with success but his productivity has since dwindled, if not entirely vanished. Fitger is employed at a less-than-distinguished institution in the Midwest with a telling name, Payne University.

The letters go out to a vice provost, department chairs, a literary agent, managers of grocery stores and other captains of industry overlooking dead-end jobs, even former girlfriends in positions of power in administration. Because Fitger is an uninhibited over-sharer, the novel’s narrative advances easily. He presents us at every turn a vivid picture of the academic workplace as a disaster zone, of literature as a beleaguered discipline, and last, but not least, the writer as truth-teller.

This might be the right place to swerve away from my subject, as letters of recommendation often do, and offer for your consideration personal, somewhat self-indulgent, anecdotes about myself. In the early nineties, while I was beginning my work on a dissertation, I sent out several applications for an assistant professor’s job. I was lucky to get a few interviews and then one campus visit to a university in the American South. This was a trip out from the snows of Minnesota in deep winter to a place that was warm and sunny. I felt I was being rescued.

After the campus visit, I waited for the call. One afternoon I was reading when the phone rang. It was the department chair, a former nun, whom I remembered by her mannerism, a child’s habit really, of using the back of her hand to regularly wipe her mouth and round face. She told me that the English department had voted to hire me, and that I could join in the fall. She was halfway through telling me that I would also be paid moving expenses when she suddenly stopped.

“I’m terribly sorry,” she said. “I’ve made a mistake. You’re not our top candidate.” I felt bad for her, especially because I understood how embarrassed she must be feeling, especially when she thought it necessary to next ask me to repeat my name. I imagined her sitting with a list in front of her, and when I gave her my name, I wondered whether she was now scratching it out.

A week or two later the phone rang again.

It was the same voice and I felt excitement flutter in my heart. The chair laughed and said that this time she knew what she was doing. She had a job offer for me. The person who had gotten the first nod from the department had chosen to go elsewhere. She said I had a week to decide but I wanted to erase the memory of her mistake: I told her I would take the job. This time she completed the sentence about paying a small amount for moving expenses.

I disliked the chair and I grew to dislike her successor; the bitterness of a small salary and small-stakes rivalries in each office along the corridor gave me for several years a skewed sense of academe. And yet, I’m sure that I didn’t once write a recommendation letter of the kind that Jason Fitger routinely writes in Dear Committee Members. Here’s an example:

You have asked for my candid assessment of Tamar Auden, applicant for the position of assistant professor, tenure track, with concentrations in British literature, rhetoric, and creative writing . . . Here’s the pertinent question: Who in god’s name, given the ad your department placed, would argue to turn Dr. Auden down? DiCameron is a small college with limited means: you’ve clearly been charged with hiring a jack-of-all-trades. And Dr. Auden is that mythical creature you seek: fully qualified to teach British and American literature, women’s studies, composition, creative writing, intermediate parasailing, advanced sword swallowing, and subcategories and permutations of the above.

Although I didn’t write letters as Fitger does, the novelist Padgett Powell, who was my colleague at the university, tried valiantly to breathe life onto the page. I served on a committee where our main job was to read letters by English department faculty evaluating graduate student teaching. Padgett’s letters were always different from the rest. I could see that he was fighting boredom but it took me some time to realize that the boredom he was fighting was one that comes from having to hide the truth. One year, a student named Tom Kenny whose teaching was being evaluated also happened to be my neighbor; when he showed me Padgett’s letter evaluating his teaching, I promptly photocopied it and hung it in a frame in my bathroom for all visitors to see. Here’s what Padgett had written in his characteristically whimsical, and witty, style:

I tender this evaluation without benefit of form not because I find the ranking numbers not merely invidious but invidious in a silly way, but because I do not have a form.

I observed a class of Mr. Kenny’s last Friday that was without a doubt the most unmalleable bunch in the history of education, and already I have misstated the matter. They were not unmalleable, they were hen’s teeth; no, bumps on logs; no, blood of turnip. That’s it—I need no form because Mr. Kenny squeezed the turnip and squeezed the turnip and that turnip do not bleed.

During this prodigious effort on Mr. Kenny’s part, he gave a charming explication of “Rappaccini’s Daughter” that ran a good vernacular gamut; “Who’s Rappaccini and what’s the deal with his daughter?” should have opened the floor to his neat delineation of Puritan oppositions and reversals in the story, an explication which made for me at least Hawthorne as interesting as he’s supposed to be.

Mr. Kenny’s syllabus and course in general suggest good, tough, old-fashioned rigor, and his method—despite somnolent troops—was alert, nuanced, and his Socratic questions had a genuine interrogative lilt to them that made me want to try a couple answers myself. I’d say Mr. Kenny does the University fine; the University, in locating this group of degree petitioners, has failed him.

As I said, I framed the above letter and kept it on display in my bathroom for the years I stayed at that dismal institution in the South. I took delight in Powell’s flouting of the role he had been assigned, but it wasn’t just the rebellion that delighted me; instead, I reveled in the creativity he had shown in responding to a writing task that is often performed as if by rote. Reading the letter I imagined the pleasure Powell had experienced in writing it. I was energized by the power that language possesses—how the words you use can transform a dull, seemingly awkward conversation into a cutting report that is refreshing to read.

In the case of Schumacher’s Fitger in Dear Committee Members, it is a delight to read letters whose writer is not regurgitating familiar phrases and is attentive to language: “A cursory glance at her transcript, with its tidy, monotonous fishing line of A’s, should suffice to recommend her.” Yes, there is a faint stirring of veiled criticism there, a typical feature in the design of recommendation letters—often, the only feature through which any light creeps inside. But Fitger is routinely more outspoken. Even his parenthetical remarks bristle with energetic—well—recommendations: “If you don’t know Hanf’s word: please head straight to the library or bookstore—I give you leave to put this letter aside and come back to it later—to find a copy of Testimony in Red, a finalist for the National Book Award, which, in the absence of cronyism among the judges that year, would have won.” Often, Fitger’s awareness of the genre pushes him to alert the reader to the expected diction of recommendation letters and, on occasion, he is able to highlight the fact that truth-telling in recommendation letters is often an exceptional condition: “Louise Frame is applying for the position of associate administrator in your department; happily, I am able to recommend her to you without reservation and with a clear conscience.”

The letter of recommendation, as a genre, demands hyperbole. It takes the writer hostage: You are a prisoner of its form. Which means that, in order to be freed, you have to pay. This is done through unearned praise and a clever concealment of truth. (The same holds true for what can be called the counter-recommendation. Just read the reviews on Amazon! Or, in the interest of honesty, consider the things I have said about that department where I once worked. Not a word so far about the friendships I formed, the students I still interact with, the support I received from colleagues as well as the university.) Returning to the letter of recommendation, however, the entire enterprise feels hollow because this exorbitant payment is nothing but a few rote phrases. Your conscience will not let you rest unless you exaggerate your praise; once this work is done, your conscience will stay troubled because you have heaped lies.

I can honestly say that I have written only one letter in my life that I’m not proud of. A student who had never taken my classes asked me to write a letter for her. This was a good fifteen-twenty years ago. I remember asking if her committee members wouldn’t do a better job and she said no. It was a short letter and it must have reflected poorly on the student; at no point was I in any doubt, however, that the letter reflected most poorly on me. Why did I write it then? I believed I was sharing the truth about the student, that my letter was a statement about her professional abilities. But I wish I had been more direct and addressed this fact openly in my letter—that would have been a more generous and collegial act. Or I could have just kept saying no when I was asked if I could please write a letter. This last path is the one I have chosen ever since. It doesn’t make me a hero, but it makes me less of a coward.

Which brings me back to Padgett Powell who, unlike the fictional Jason Fitger, is the real hero of my story. Years after I had left that place in the sun where we had been colleagues, I wrote to Padgett and asked him if he could give me rules for writing recommendation letters. This was for a book I was planning to write on style and academia. Padgett wrote back saying he didn’t have any such rules. But, he said, he had an observation. I quote it here in full:

This year we included in our application packets—the ones we look

at to base admissions on—for the first time the letters of recommendation. We thought we should, after all. After reading about twenty of these sets of letters, I think we all realized that if we got, say, 240 applications for 6 spots, and we read the letters of recommendation, we would admit 240 candidates. I prudently discontinued including the letters in the packets.

I saw, in the twenty or forty letters I read, one that was candid and telling; it included negativity. It was from Jamaica Kincaid, not an academic. It is the only letter I read that I trust. Had the writing of the candidate been stronger, we would have taken her over other candidates with equal writing who had but glowing this-is-a-genius letters.

Years ago we had an applicant who had a story that was hauntingly strong, like something that had been found in an early drawer of Tennessee Williams or Truman Capote. The other sample was average and weak. We happened to read a letter of recommendation. It so began:

“The last time I saw Ms. _____ she was standing wet and naked on a chair, holding a smoke alarm, while living on an island for a week in my home.
The story that I suspect she has applied to your program with she stole from me.”

We decided the letter writer was crazy and threw the letter out and got a fourth to replace it and admitted the student and were wrong. She never wrote anything approaching the stolen story.

Dear committee members, I don’t want to turn all lit crit on you but that letter of recommendation Padgett quotes is startling, thrilling in its vividness, and certainly disturbing—the tone is proprietary, and not just about the work. It is so personal that it seems unprofessional and yet, in the context, perhaps not unprofessional at all. I like its excess.  

This past May, the Princeton mathematician John F. Nash and his wife were killed in a car accident. Nash was a Nobel laureate, famous for his work in game theory and even more famous for having his life turned into an Oscar-winning film, A Beautiful Mind. In the days after Nash’s death, a letter of recommendation was widely circulated on social media. It had been written to help Nash get admitted to Princeton. The letter was simple and short, but like a math equation, it suggested something more profound. It contained only three sentences; the first two provided perfunctory information, and the final sentence read: “He is a mathematical genius.”

I marveled at Nash when I read that line but I was also full of admiration for the writer of that letter. Such economy! Plain speaking like this would appear almost eccentric in today’s academe. Letters of recommendation say as much about the writer as they do about their subjects. In Schumacher’s novel, Jason Fitger is often prolix. He has got much more on his mind and who could blame him. Academic institutions increasingly kowtow to corporate interests and hapless faculty often submit to unimaginative administrators. Teaching literature is a rebellion against the sterility of spirit. Or so Fitger believes, and I guess I do too. Kafka’s famous line (written in a letter to a friend and not, alas, as a part of a letter of recommendation) goes something like this: “A book must be the axe for the frozen sea within us.” For Fitger at least, that is what a letter of recommendation also must do. He is staging a protest, even if he is almost aware that it is all futile, and I recommend him most enthusiastically. Please give his letters the attention they deserve.

Sincerely, etc.

Image courtesy mira66

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Amitava Kumar's latest book is Lunch With a Bigot. He teaches English at Vassar College. His website is www.amitavakumar.com and he can be followed on Twitter @amitavakumar.

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