Some thoughts on the state of crossword discussion on the Internet
I have a confession to make – I like crossword puzzles. Ok, ok, you probably do too, but I have an even deeper, darker, "please don’t tell a soul" confession – I enjoy New York Times crosswords. Wow, I just lost most of my audience! Never mind, the rest of us can now have a quiet little chat.
If you read the popular puzzle blogs, you may quickly conclude that, at least at the NYT, the state of the art is deteriorating, that the current Editor doesn’t understand crosswords or has poor taste or has become lazy and irrelevant, that there was some long-past Golden Age when NYT crossword puzzles were noticeably better, and that the Times puzzles are right at the bottom when stacked against crosswords from all the other major venues. Any art criticism is subjective, of course, but this dour view seems to be consistently expressed or at least implied by the independent blogs and largely reaffirmed in the comments. Spoiler alert! My own subjective view is that none of that is true.
I used to blog about crosswords myself. I quit for several reasons – my aversion to hard work, my short attention span, and my myriad other life aspirations which got put on hold for too long. I also became depressed by the increasing negativity of conversation on the web. Even my website became a magnet for hate mail so I tried to shut XWord Info down. Fortunately, it got turned over to Jeff Chen instead. He's one of the most likeable people around so I thought he'd be immune. Mostly he is, but we still get the occasional unsolicited flame. Here's an excerpt from one that arrived a few days ago from a non-fan we'll call Mark:
The commentary on this site is noticeably biased, and I think you should seriously consider whether you should be commenting on the xwords at all given the main remit of your website. Read the review of today's xword from Amy and Rex. Then read yours. Ask yourself if you agree with them more than you agree with your own commentary.
I took "Mark" up on his challenge and asked Mr. Chen whether he agreed more with those other bloggers or whether he agreed more with himself. He looked at me like I was crazy.
The two blogs Mark refers to have been popular for years. Amy Reynaldo runs Diary of a Crossword Fiend which is written by a consortium of expert (meaning very fast) solvers. They typically rate puzzles numerically, often up to three significant digits. NYT puzzles languish far down the scale most days. At the end of 2012, a list of best puzzles of the year included not a single NYT crossword, notably with no comment about this omission. The year before, there was not a single year-end mention of the Patrick Berry "Cross" word contest week which I called the best word puzzle I'd ever done. They really don’t seem to like Will Shortz crosswords over there.
They rarely hate them though. For that kind of extreme reaction, you need to turn to the other blog Mark mentioned, Rex Parker Does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle. It’s not clear why the pseudonymous Mr. Parker does the NY Times Crossword Puzzle since it seems to be a painful experience for him most days, or why he chooses not to blog about the puzzles he considers superior instead.
Let's look at the most recent (as I write this) NYT puzzle, the December 4 crossword by Daniel Raymon. I thought the "change the SK sounds in common phrases to SQU sounds" theme was fantastic. I was charmed by all the theme answers and in particular the last one. The first three had phrases that began with SQU and just when I confidently started the last one with SQU, I realized I was fooled as the second word began with SQU instead. I love when that happens. Going against expectations on the final theme answer is a fairly standard NYT trick, expertly executed in the recent DRACULA grid. All those Qs meant there was likely going to be some compromises in the fill, but that seemed like a worthwhile tradeoff to me. Let's see what the bloggers thought.
Deb Amlen over at the Wordplay blog says “this theme has a glaring problem” objecting to the twist that particularly delighted me. Her brain started hearing the theme from Psycho "because all of the theme entries are supposed to have something in common." To my mind, the theme is perfectly consistent – SK sounds are changed to SQU sounds. Each was amusing. Why ask for more?
Ms. Reynaldo was less passionate about her objections: "With so much symmetry in crossword puzzles, the theme ought to hew to the same model. Did the fourth theme answer's structure throw you for a loop, or did you not care?" but it still ended up as the lowest rated puzzle of the day. I gritted my teeth and headed over the Mr. Parker's site, and sure enough his review starts: "More evidence of the NYT's declining standards, and what I can only imagine is a significantly shallower talent pool than in previous years." Ah well, you have to admire his consistency.
So, what’s going on here? One theory would have to be that I’m just wrong, I'm completely out of the mainstream, and my enjoyment of NYT crosswords merely demonstrates my shallow lack of sophistication. After all, I am decidedly not an expert solver. Who cares what I might think? That's probably the correct conclusion but just for kicks, let's explore some other theories:
- Blogs are written by people who are not the target audience for the puzzles. Every blogger can solve a typical crossword in minutes and while Mr. Shortz would surely like to appeal to them as well, they're only a small slice of his very broad constituency. The remark that "I never even saw the theme until I was finished" would be inconceivable to the vast majority of solvers for whom uncovering the theme along the way is one of the central joys. Solvers include young hipsters and older retirees. They include people from New York City and others from far away, subway riders and airline captains on auto-pilot, scientists and poets, on and on.
- The blogs are written by people who have done so many puzzles that they've become tired of the standard forms. Ms. Amlen dislikes vowel progressions. Ms. Reynaldo doesn't care for words that come before and after. Others disapprove of puzzles that ask you to draw on the grid, and so on. These standard forms become standard because they allow for a wide variety of creativity and while any form can become monotonous, dismissing them outright seems like saying "if I hear another symphonic movement in sonata allegro from, I’m tearing up my season’s tickets."
- Counter-intuitively, while they tire of conventions, the bloggers seem to be more conservative than I am, often dismissing crosswords that push the envelope. I think the puzzle world has a place for Brahms-like masterful executions and for brash, discordant, Mahler-like showoff pieces and for Stravinsky-like 12-tone-experiments that might completely fail but that just might point to the future of the art form.
- To my mind, bloggers have an unreasonable focus on the weakest short fill entries. Of course good fill is better than bad fill but give me a great theme or an awesome themeless with a few crappy entries and I couldn't care less about the clunkers. Besides, you and I probably won't even agree on which fill is bad. In that same Daniel Raymon puzzle, Mr. Chen complained about NEWSIES and THEIST, two of my favorite answers.
- There’s a tendency to equate knowledge gaps with bad puzzle-making. Mr. Shortz says his audience is well-educated NYT readers who have a wide variety of interests. Nobody knows everything but I often see my favorite answer words being decried as flaws. Just because an unfamiliar word crosses a name you don't know doesn't mean either is necessarily bad.
- There is too much focus on symmetry and consistency. Artists know that balance is nice but asymmetry is often more interesting. Most grids have symmetric blocks but Mr. Shortz is willing to break that convention when he feels it is warranted. I realize opinion is divided here but I’m much happier when I can keep my Consistency Hobgoblin locked in its cage in the basement. Others keep it on a short leash or even clasped around their necks but not me. The puzzle is not better if the SQUs are all at the start or if four theme names are equally balanced between men and women, between northern hemisphere and southern hemisphere dwellers, between blondes and brunettes, between atheists and believers and whatever other arbitrary distinction you'd like to see. It's better off if the answers chosen result in the grid that's the most fun to solve. These are puzzles. They should be surprising!
- There is irrational hand-wringing when made-up rules are broken. I often end up scratching my head trying to understand objections from Fiend blogger pannonica that seem completely arbitrary to me, but all the bloggers do this. Remember, there are no rules. There are some conventions but Mr. Shortz gets to do whatever he thinks will enchant his audiences. He's not "wrong" any more than Leonard Bernstein was "wrong" to start his West Side Story love song Maria with the much-maligned augmented fourth interval. Conventions can be broken at any time for any reason or for no reason. Editors don't owe us an explanation, only a finished product we can choose to consume or not.
And of course, choose to enjoy or not. Don't get me wrong. I would never imply that bloggers shouldn't express their strongest most critical opinions about any puzzle. The Internet is powered by people who can't help but express their strong and usually critical opinions and the great world keeps spinning. My opinion is no more valid and decidedly less educated then theirs, but my viewpoint is not completely without experience either. I have looked closely at every Shortz-era puzzle and now, thanks to the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, many earlier ones. To my mind, we really are in a Golden Age of puzzles with more constructor and editorial creativity than ever before. I continue to have fun and that's the point. I enjoy crosswords from most publishers but NYT remains my favorite. I'm not smart enough to do the late-month Gaffneys. I'm not hip enough for the BEQs. I'm not educated enough for the toughest Fireballs. I love the Crossword Nation puzzles from Liz Gorski and I often enjoy CrosSynergy and LA Times. Reagle Sundays are usually fun. The NYT works just about right for me most of the time.
I can summarize in one sentence: even though most web commentary you read implies or even asserts that NYT puzzles are strapped to that famous free-falling hand basket, there's at least one small dissenting voice, mine.