Award-winning professor stresses thinking outside the box

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BYU English professor Chris Crowe received the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award during his forum on May 25. (BYU Photo/Madeline Mortensen)

BYU English professor Chris Crowe spoke on the importance of being flexible with the expectations and genre boundaries people place on creativity during the May 25 forum.

Crowe, a YA author and former BYU football player, was also presented with the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecturer Award during the forum.

“This is the highest faculty award that we have on campus, recognizing not only good and excellent research, but good and excellent teaching,” President Kevin J Worthen said. “Professor Crowe embodies what we hope our faculty come to represent here at the university.”

Following the presentation of the award, Crowe discussed his own experiences expanding his perceptions of genre, which he said is composed of defining characteristics and traits.

He started with the topic of art, a subject he said he is not very familiar with. He said most contemporary, conceptual art leaves him flatfooted because it lacks the defining characteristics that usually make something “art” such as an installation where a piece of white paper dropped from the ceiling every few seconds.

Despite the genre barriers that contemporary art breaks, Crowe said those pieces “have generated more thought, discussion and interest than all the paintings and sculptures I speed-walked past in the the world famous Louvre Museum, combined.”

He stressed that the traits people usually ascribe to a certain genre change over time as people bend them and push the limits — something he’s seen in his area of expertise, YA novels, over the last few decades.

“Nowadays, it appears that traditional genre rules no longer apply, and trying to contain the creative evolution of YA literature is like trying to draw boundaries on water,” Crowe said. “The traits are fluid and ever-evolving, and sometimes it seems that as soon as someone redefines what a YA novel is or must be, some author takes that as a challenge to write a book that blurs or obliterates those boundaries.”

He described how he put this into practice with his most recently published novel.

Crowe started out with a historical-fiction about a 17-year-old boy dealing with conflict at home complicated by the Vietnam War. He placed the novel in 1968, during which more American soldiers died than in all the previous years combined. 

“I pounded out a first page, then a chapter, then another chapter, but as the novel grew, so did my sense of despair,” he said. “My story was boring!”

He knew unless he could find a way to revive the manuscript, he’d have to dump the project altogether. He tried out a number of unsuccessful ideas before landing on writing a novel with 16,592 syllables — one for every American soldier who died in 1968.

Initially he had no confidence that it would work, but he said, “The challenge of writing and revising an entire novel in haiku stanzas breathed life into my dead manuscript, and eventually it turned out that at least one publisher considered it a ‘novel.’”

This novel sparked the idea for the project Crowe is currently working on: a draft of about 115 poems from 30 different characters that tell the story of an American solider who went missing in action during the Vietnam War.

He attributed the success he’s had with both of these projects to the willingness he had to explore and understand other works that pushed the boundaries.

“If I hadn’t already been familiar with all the genre-bending, boundary-blurring artistic work that came before, I couldn’t possibly have conceived of something like this weird little haiku novel,” he said.

Crowe ended his lecture with a reading of an excerpt from his current draft in which the poems from each character were read by his former students.

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