Ann Beattie, a well-known writer and a vice president for literature of the American Academy of Arts and Letters, has a problem: she’s tired of writing letters of recommendation for former students. Students applying for jobs and fellowships, Beattie acknowledges, have no choice but to ask for letters of recommendation. It’s not that they want to. It’s that reference letters are an integral part of the application process. If you want time to write, a job, an internship, any activity that will help you get your writing done, you need a letter, preferably from someone with name recognition. Like Ann Beattie. The system does not allow for exemptions. Even “much older retired professors” keep getting requests. Presumably you’d have to die if you wanted to escape the chore.
Now it’s true that writing letters of recommendation for students, colleagues, young hopefuls, is not how anyone wishes to spend her own writing time. Still, the fact is that we all―writers, teachers, artists―exist in a great chain of indebtedness. My own students have to write letters for their students, and only last year I had to ask for blurbs, and letters of recommendation for a residency at a foundation. I did not enjoy being in the supplicant position. Who does? It’s even more humbling (not to say humiliating) to have to ask when you yourself are old (one of those old professors who keep getting tracked down in order to write a letter of recommendation). There is no exit from the system―and it was always thus, only sub rosa. A professor asked a colleague at another university to hire his student. His word was enough. This kind of deal-making was the norm (that’s how my husband got his first job) until affirmative action threw a monkey wrench into the old-boy network machinery. Not that it has been dismantled. It has only gone underground.
Why do we bother? This week two of my students received prestigious fellowships. Is it because of my compelling letter of recommendation, or because some committee found their project exciting or interesting? Or both. There’s no way to know. Did I love writing the letters? Not really. I’m just happy with the outcome.
Beattie wonders whether there isn’t a better way to judge a candidate’s worth, and ends her essay by describing her husband’s heroic achievement of rescuing a flying squirrel caught inside their screened porch. It was in unrehearsed moments like this, Beattie suggests, that we can “see a person’s true character.”
Exemplary as the husband’s squirrel rescue may have been, a flying squirrel isn’t always available.
There’s really no good solution to the “incessant selling of the self” that Beattie laments. Let the work speak for itself. Hmm. Besides Ann Beattie, who seems not to remember whether she ever had to ask, there’s Fifty Shades of Grey that became an instant sensation because its fan fiction readers did not require a famous writer’s blurb to guarantee their pleasure.
If only we could find a way to combine a squirrel and a hot sex manual, we’d happily bypass the rigors of self-promotion. Until then, I will keep writing letters for my students.