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Professor Chris Crowe Delivers Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Lecture

Addressing the campus community, Professor Chris Crowe spoke on the importance of understanding both the convention of genre and how to bend those conventions in order to create deeper meaning.

Professor Chris Crowe (English) recently received the Karl G. Maeser Distinguished Faculty Award—the highest award BYU gives a professor—and spoke on his teaching and writing career at the May 25 university forum. In addition to this award, Crowe has also previously received the Karl G. Maeser Excellence in Teaching Award, the Nan Osmond Gras professorship in English, and a Karl G. Maeser Research and Creative Arts Award.

Crowe began his lecture by reflecting on contemporary art exhibits he had visited with his wife, who tried to help Crowe understand the meaning and significance of these untraditional art works. While he admitted to a “low-brow, traditional view of art,” he acknowledged, “When I think about my various encounters with what I call non-traditional contemporary art, [they] have generated more thought, discussion, and interest than all the paintings and sculptures I speed walked past in the world-famous Louvre Museum combined.”

Just like contemporary art is known for pushing the boundaries of its "genre," young adult novel writing has been and continues to push the boundaries of what is considered a “novel.”

As a scholar of young adult novel writing, Crowe has observed many genre-bending novels emerge over the years. Authors often push against the conventions of the novel genre, and genre evolution has affected authors and readers alike.

Photo of Professor Chris Crowe presenting at his Forum Address
Photo by Madeline Mortensen

Crowe gave two examples from his own work writing young adult historical fiction novels. When he first conceived the idea for his most recent novel, titled Death Coming up the Hill, he faced some significant challenges. In the early draft stages, Crowe realized that the novel had a fatal flaw: it was boring. In an effort to breathe new life into the manuscript, Crowe examined how he might use genre-bending.

As he brainstormed ways to enhance the story, Crowe began thinking of how numbers appeared throughout the story of a teenage boy living through the Vietnam War. “One of the few things I liked about it was the odd [recurring] appearance of the number seventeen.” Seventeen also happens to be the number of syllables in a haiku. Furthermore, the number 16,592, which represents the number of US casualties in the Vietnam War, is divisible by 17. Crowe took all these realizations and decided to revise his novel to be a series of 976 haiku poems.

“The challenge of writing and revising an entire novel in 976 haiku stanzas breathed life into my dead manuscript and eventually it turned out that at least one publisher considered it a novel,” said Crowe. “So how did all the strange modern art . . . influence me? Well, if I hadn't already been familiar with all the genre-bending, boundary-blurring artistic work that came before, I could not have possibly conceived of something like this weird little haiku novel.”

After the success of his haiku novel, Crowe decided to set his current novel project during the Vietnam War also. The story focuses on a young man who is drafted and later declared M.I.A. Crowe reflected on his process beginning the novel, “I wondered how many genre traits I could leave out of a novel and still have it be a novel. Could I write a story that approximated an impressionist painting? Could I use broad vague brushstrokes that made sense [and] that omits essential traditional elements of a novel? Could I trust my readers to fill in the gaps?”

The result of his experimentation has been a series of 115 free verse poems written from the perspectives of 30 different people whose lives were in some way affected by the missing soldier. Crowe concluded the forum by having a handful of his students and colleagues perform an excerpt from the poetry project.

To learn more about Chris' teaching experience, research and publications, click here.

To watch the forum address he gave on May 25, click here.