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« What is Will Shortz thinking? | Main | My Favorite Books of 2013 »

12/04/2013

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Barry Franklin

Agree with all you said. The NYT puzzles are an endless source of fun, sometimes even joy.

But, not sure why you started your piece in the augmented fourth interval.

Pawel Fludzinski

Completely agree. Will Shortz has the challenging task of appealing to novice constructors who struggle on Mondays to those that can complete a Saturday puzzle in less than 5 min. As a new constructor, I always read the blogs because I find them instructive in terms of how some people assess puzzles, but in the end, they are like movie critiques - often very little correlation between what the critic says and my enjoyment of the film.

Finally, I think Xword is a terrific site and appreciate Jim's creation and maintenance of the site for many years. Like any great product, it takes a new innovator to take it to the next level and Jeff has done that. Well done guys.

Evan Birnholz

Thanks for the post, Jim. As one of Rex's frequent commenters and occasional substitutes, I have a few points in response.

1. First, though I myself was pretty critical of yesterday's SQU- puzzle, I'm not of the opinion that the NYT puzzles are declining. I still solve them because they're fun. Will's done a great job over the years of bringing new forms and constructors into the fold. I think there's certainly more fresh themes and less obscure stuff than what you'd see from the Maleska era. Of course it's impossible to please everyone all of the time, and when you run 365 puzzles a year and get who-knows-how-many submissions each week, you're going to run puzzles with theme ideas that some solvers might consider worn out.

But having said that, I don't think it's unreasonable to point out the flaws in a NYT puzzle's execution. You say there's too much focus on symmetry and consistency, but when the NYT's own publisher specification sheet on cruciverb.com says that themes need to be applied consistently throughout a puzzle, it follows that they value symmetry and consistency pretty highly and encourage constructors to do same. Call me a traditionalist, but I think the genius of crosswords is that even when they're tricky and break from conventions, there's always a method to the madness -- when a theme ignores symmetry/consistency for essentially no reason, then the puzzle makes less sense to me. I guess I don't see the downside to making a puzzle's theme both symmetrical and consistent -- it's not like there needs to be a choice between having a perfectly symmetrical/consistent theme and having a fun puzzle.

And while I agree that certain puzzle forms should not be dismissed outright, it bears mentioning that even Will has moved away from some themes that we might have seen regularly 15 years ago. He almost never runs quotation puzzles anymore. Maybe the this-word-follows-the-first-word-of-every-theme-answer gimmick will be phased out many years from now -- who knows?

2. While I can understand your frustration with bloggers whose opinions about the NYT puzzle are decidedly more negative than yours, I think you're still oversimplifying "bloggers" as a group and leaving out a good reason that they're quite valuable: They've helped make puzzles better. The blogs are a great tool for gathering input on the puzzle experience and sparking debate about the puzzle's merits among lots of different solvers -- not just speed-solvers. Even though Will has (understandably) expressed frustration about Rex's commentary too, he has also said that he has become a better editor as a result of reading Rex's criticism.

I can speak from personal experience that reading Rex's and Amy's blogs and participating on them have made me not just a far better solver than I was four years ago, but a much better constructor -- they've helped give me a good sense about what works and what doesn't in a puzzle. You critique them for being too narrowly focused on weak, short fill. But just by reading and commenting, I've built and adapted my word lists and have done a much better job of cleaning up junk in my own grids than I used to. Obviously, if Rex's or Amy's style isn't to your liking, that's fine. But I doubt I would have ever been published in the NYT were it not for reading their daily insights.

(I hasten to add that I also read Jeff Chen's daily commentary as well, and there's no question he's a great guy. I have no problem if he views a puzzle more positively than Rex or Amy does. It's good to get that perspective too and he often makes good points -- in fact, he's made me consider the idea that Monday puzzles might actually be the hardest ones to create, which is something I hadn't really thought about before.)

3. You write that bloggers often dismiss "crosswords that push the envelope." That's confusing to me. Both Rex and Amy have lavished praise on puzzles that use a really intricate trick or have lots of modern, slangy terms that might not normally pass the breakfast test -- both of them loved Patrick Blindauer's DOUBLE FEATURE puzzle from July 25, 2013, for instance. BEQ puzzles often get high marks on Amy's website.

But maybe this is a terminology issue. I've read some of your previous posts, so if I understand what you mean by "push the envelope," I'm guessing you're referring to puzzles that accomplish a certain grid feat like quadruple stacks or Joe Krozel's various low word-count puzzles. I actually subbed for Rex on one of those puzzles last June. I'll reiterate what I wrote there: I'm not usually a fan of that type of puzzle either. Because while it's impressive in its own way for a constructor to build grids with a high degree of fill-difficulty, I find it's not as fun of a solve because too often the result is a puzzle with way too many compromises for my taste -- lots of crappy entries crossing the stacks, or jammed in a huge 6x6 corner (Tyler Hinman made that same point in a well-read blog post last year called "The War on Fill"). I recognize that that kind of grid will still appeal to many solvers, and I don't want to suggest that it's utterly impossible to execute a quadruple-stack well. But ultimately, I just think the answers usually end up being fresher and livelier in a 66- or a 72-word themeless puzzle, with less junk to go along with it.

Anyway, I meant all of this in the spirit of joining in a good conversation, so I appreciated reading your post even if I disagreed with some of what you wrote (as I hope you'll do the same for this comment).

r.alphbunker

@JH
You have expressed my feelings about crossword puzzles beautifully. Your post brings to mind a quote of Keats:
"Poetry should please by a fine excess and not by singularity.
It should strike the reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts,
and appear almost as a remembrance." -John Keats, poet (1795-1821)

Jeffrey K

If crossword bloggers covered sports:

"While Casey's consecutive Home Runs in his first three at bats were impressive, the day was spoiled by his strike out 4th time up. It is a mystery why the Manager kept him in the game and he should be sent back to the minors immediately."

Great column Jim.

Gareth

I disagree with a lot of what is written, but the statement "There’s a tendency to equate knowledge gaps with bad puzzle-making." I endorse wholeheartedly. It's one of the things in any commentary that irks me most.

One thing that I strongly disagree with, is that most regular solvers are more focused on themes. My own anecdotal experience with more casual solvers is that most are not even aware that themes exist, or if they do, they have decided before hand that the theme will be too abstruse for them to understand and therefore ignore it completely. My other anecdotal experience is that "crossword-ese" or not, the number of hard answers, and especially their arrangement is a big hump to get over that often leads many to give up.

It should be said noted many of the most passionate bloggers and commenters are frequent or occasional constructors, and their own dealings with editors plays a role. It can be frustrating to see a puzzle that has a feature that caused your own to be rejected. For instance, inconsistencies in theme arrangement as per the SQU puzzle or even the presence of specific entries or being allowed more than 78 answers. However, usually if you stare hard enough there is a compelling if subjective reason why it was allowed in the particular case.

Amy Reynaldo

"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"?

Did you even look at the 2012 Orca Awards? (http://www.crosswordfiend.com/blog/2013/02/24/the-2012-orca-awards-2/) There were NYT puzzles nominated in more than one category. It is true that the list of the year's best puzzles (http://www.crosswordfiend.com/blog/best2012/) includes no NYTs, but this is strictly ratings-driven data (puzzles with an average star rating of 4.67 or above). The Fiend blogging team does not control the readers' star ratings--so your issue is not with the bloggers here.

And believe me, the crossword community has talked plenty about the NYT's average ratings being lower, even if I'm not blogging extensively about it. Top solvers are spoiled by the sort of smooth, junk-free fill that is emphasized in some other venues (Newsday Saturday Stumper, everything Peter Gordon applies his Midas touch to, etc.), and when we see junk in the NYT and we can tell how easy it would have been to clean up a section and get smoother fill (quite often, noodling around for 60 seconds is literally all it takes), we are irritated. Sure, lots of solvers are accustomed to finding ERSE and and ERLE in plenty of puzzles, but can you honestly say you wouldn't enjoy the puzzles as much if the fill included less of that sort of crosswordese? If the supposed "gold standard" of crosswords demanded the very best?

Going back to the 2011 Orca Awards (http://www.crosswordfiend.com/blog/2012/02/26/the-2011-orca-awards/), the prizes for best easy puzzle, best freestyle, best Sunday, and best gimmick all went to NYT puzzles! What horrible and unfair treatment of the NYT crossword. Gosh, you are right to say that Crossword Fiend has it in for the NYT.

Alex Vratsanos

Thank you, Jim. Amazing article.

Without a doubt, Will and his constructors have worked very hard to improve the quality of puzzles over his 20 years as Editor. As a litzer for the Pre-Shortzian Puzzle Project, I am 99.9% sure that you would never see a gimmick like David Kwong's DRACULA gimmick this past Halloween in a puzzle under Maleska, Weng, or Farrar. They were all great editors, but Will has arguably advanced the NYT crossword puzzle (and, one could say, the crossword puzzle itself) more than any of them. Take, for example, the puzzle for August 4, 1984 (http://www.xwordinfo.com/PS?date=8/4/1984): it has TAA, DKM, LOT O', AUNA, POA, CIF, EAO, and TOU. I can't remember the last time I saw any of those in a puzzle under Will.

I do not mean to attack anyone- not the previous NYT crossword editors, not bloggers, not solvers, no one. The editors had their tastes, the bloggers have theirs, the solvers have theirs, and I have mine. What I do mean to say is that crosswords, like many other things, are diverse, and that we should accept that and work together to create even better puzzles for future generations of puzzlers.

Tyler

I take issue with all of points 3-7. 3, 5, 6, and 7, I think, misidentify things the critics have problems with; in reality, these all point back to what's referenced in 4: the fill. I know it's much better than it used to be, which is great, but there are times when it really seems to suffer to accommodate a theme or a marquee entry or a rare letter. I've been over all this before (http://www.tylerhinman.com/blog/posts/827) and my stance has not changed in the year and a half since. I think fill should get the MOST attention.

To pick out one phrase from 4, "an awesome themeless with a few crappy entries" is simply a contradiction. The fill is all there is in a themeless, so it really has to shine for me to consider it "awesome." Of course, the definition of poor fill is neither objective (e.g. I despise partials while others don't) nor binary (e.g. a partial is better than a contrived abbreviation nobody ever uses), but that's where some interesting discussion can lie.

Joon Pahk

i don't think that the nyt puzzle is declining on an absolute basis. but i do think it is declining on a relative basis, because the competition is getting better very quickly.

by contrast, the improvement in the nyt puzzles over the past decade or so has been incremental. there have been some welcome changes: a few innovative contest puzzles, fewer blah themes, higher fill standards. but there are still plenty of blah themes and plenty of weak fill in the nyt puzzle.

it's my sense that amy, deb, and rex are all people who solve crosswords and write about them because they love crosswords. (why else...?) they can see the higher standards being set by crosswords in other venues: in other newspapers, subscription puzzles like the fireball and avx, and the "indie" scene like the mgwcc, beq, erik agard, neville fogarty, andy kravis, etc.

at some point, in the face of all the evidence, it becomes disingenuous or downright dishonest to keep perpetuating the notion that the nyt is the "gold standard" of crossword puzzles. it's a good puzzle, but the people who love it and write about it think it could be better.

Elizabeth

I'd like to complete Joon's list of indie puzzles .. my own indie brand, Crossword Nation. Since 2011, Crossword Nation has offered high-quality, easy/medium puzzles for mobile, desktop and print solvers. We add new distribution partners each year. I'm very thankful that Janie Smulyan blogs our puzzle on Amy Reynaldo's site each Tuesday. My mission is to provide easy-level puzzles with fresh themes that are interesting, literate and fun. Women constructors are very active in the indie space. I hope that future discussions will include women in the indie puzzle space, as well.

Jim Horne

I'm blushing red that I omitted mentioning the Crossword Nation puzzles in my list. I do those more regularly than the others (because they're great!) but somehow I just blanked. Sorry, Liz.

Deb Amlen

Well, I don't know about Amy and Rex, Joon, but I personally am in it for the big bucks and lucrative endorsement deals.

Kelly Clark

Great post. Thanks!

Danchall

I believe the NYT puzzle has a vastly broader audience than that many of the other puzzles preferred by the bloggers, put together. By necessity the audience is different from those of the other puzzles. So it seems difficult to compare quality, or call one set of standards "higher." (It's not as simple as all the thousands of other solvers having lower standards: they value different criteria.)

It's tempting to believe that the attributes we value are objective indicators of quality, but I think there always are a variety of ways of judging any given puzzle. People can differ in judging a puzzle that has several wonderful parts but a few other parts that some people find boring or obscure. It boils down to personal preferences.

So the bloggers have every right to share their negative views. I have no problem at all when the bloggers hate a puzzle, even day after day, but I do question the belief that the judgments are absolute or objective. I've read a lot of criticisms that, to me, seemed to show that belief, or outrage that the puzzle was allowed to be published. I can't share that particular attitude, even for puzzles I don't enjoy.

In one of those Joe Krozel stacked fifteens, I may not admire a given specific "sacrifice" or four, but I still can admire the puzzle as a whole. They typically present a different solving experience from the typical puzzle, still challenging and yet solvable. There are 365 NYT puzzles a year, and there should be room for the kinds of puzzles that aren't in our sweet spot or don't meet all the criteria that we value most highly. It's not as simple as a reduction of quality, but rather a choice to produce a different kind of challenge that otherwise would never be seen.

It seems to me that adhering rigorously to a certain set of standard aesthetic criteria makes a puzzle more predictable. A few entries that may seem "ugly" serve as surprises, and it's reasonable to feel that a puzzle with some of them can still be worthwhile, especially if the compromises facilitate some other feature that can make a puzzle interesting.

Matt Ginsberg

I also agree with what Jim says, but would even take it a step further.

When I published my first NYT puzzle, and the next couple of dozen thereafter, I would wait eagerly for the puzzle to come out -- because I wanted to read the blogs. I found the comments uplifting and encouraging. Reading the blogs was, in many ways, the most fun part about having a puzzle appear.

I don't do that any more. Sometimes, a puzzle of mine will come out and I won't even remember to read the blogs. I don't think it's because I've become blase; I think it's because reading the blogs isn't so much fun for the constructor any more. I can no longer count on them to say, at worst, "This was a cool puzzle, but ..."

I also don't think it's because my puzzles are worse than they used to be. I'm the same guy, with the same imagination, using tools that are certainly no *worse* than they used to be.

And here's the real thing -- I don't construct as much as I used to. Maybe I'm busier. Maybe the novelty has worn off. Maybe I'm not as imaginative, which strikes me as more likely than my standards having changed.

Or maybe it's because the fun I used to anticipate in reading the blogs isn't so fun any more. And to whatever extent other constructors share those feelings, to whatever extent the increased negativity in the blogs is reducing the number of beautiful crosswords people take the time to create, that's a tremendous shame.

andreacarlamichaels

@Jim, @Matt: Here Hear!
Originally the blogs elevated the discussion and really made things better, I think, for both the solvers and the constructors... but somewhere along the line it's jumped the shark and the unrelenting negativity, pettiness and many times ridiculous, mean-spirited off-base comments (I'm talking about anonymice and certain frequent commenters) has sucked the life out what is a lovely, creative, ill-paid endeavor.

Jeff Chen

It seems odd to post here since Jim and I e-mail/chat/drink 16 bottles of wine a few times a week, but I'm adding my two cents. I agree with most of your thoughtful commentary, Jim, but I do think the bloggers and commenters have some valid and useful points.

Specifically, I disagree with you on point 4. As Tyler pointed out, most of them time fill quality is subjective, so I really enjoy the debate about which set of potential entries has the most merit / least drawbacks. (With Dani's puzzle I thought the surrounding fill could have been made cleaner and sparklier if NEWSIES and THEISTS were broken up, but you really liked those entries -- that's an interesting point of discussion to me.) Rarely is there total consensus on which fill option is "best", but occasionally, there's a corner where given a panel of 10 constructors, 9 or 10 of them would agree on a different way to fill it.

Let's consider today's puzzle, 12/6/13. As Rex points out, the SW could have avoided the partial AIS in favor of HIS or AID. One *might* argue that having the partial helps weaker solvers gain a toehold in that area (a "friend" of mine breathed a sigh of relief when I -- I mean, he -- hit that entry), but that's awfully tenuous. It's both reasonable and useful to point out that this corner could have been improved.

The method in which feedback is given is what I take issue with. Saying things like "More evidence of the NYT's declining standards ..." is hardly ever the way to effect positive change. If Joon's assumption about all of us starting from a love of crosswords is true, then how about we all commit to giving rational feedback in a non-ranting way, one that might actually get someone to listen?

I appreciated that Rex was less harsh than usual in his commentary about this particular AIS puzzle corner. Perhaps Will might even consider that sort of non-abusive constructive criticism for the future.

From browsing the Maleska-era puzzles, I know the NYT crossword has come a long way. But I also realize that there's always room for improvement, especially as increased competition raises the bar. I agree with Amy; I would like to see the NYT demand the very best.

Tracy B.

After Rex's review of Dani's puzzle I experienced an internal debate/crisis that is much like what I'm seeing played out here. It was the third time in as many weeks that I'd read a review from Rex that was (outrageously, I thought) disrespectful and joy-killing to read: so much so that I felt an ache for the constructor having to read it, left the site quickly, and skipped reading the comments, which I usually read. On the other hand, generally I find myself being attuned to and informed by what bloggers and commenters say they do and don't like while I'm filling a grid, and it's valuable, good stuff. I develop my own aesthetic as I solve different styles of puzzle more consciously focusing on the creator's style and choices. So I value the blog feedback, positive or negative, when it's delivered in a balanced, constructive way.

Vic Fleming

I’ve never been more glad that I opted not to become a blogger. There’s a fine line between objectivity and subjectivity—in news articles, but not op-eds. Bloggers are op-ed writers. They don’t have to be objective. The First Amendment gives them the right to hurt people’s feelings. No one has to read them.

In a crossword class I taught years ago was a woman who was recovering from a stroke. Part of her therapy was to solve crosswords. She was struggling to finish Wednesday’s NYT each week. By the end of the eight-week class, she was scaling the “Thursday wall.” For months following the last class, when I’d see her on the sidewalk, she’d smile and give me a status report. E.g., “I’m working on Saturday. Getting close!”

“Hang in there,” I’d say. I remember not being able to solve weekend puzzles.

This woman could not care less whether a fill has two or three partials. She’s proud to know ERSE and ERLE. Truth to tell, I was the same way ... until I started constructing. And now, when I see ERSE or ERLE in a puzzle, my mind clicks into gear: “Hmm, could the constructor not have used ERGO, ERIE, ERIN, ...?" I don’t consider this knack that I’ve developed to be a blessing.

When I reprised the crossword class in 2008, my former student signed up again. On the first day, she greeted me and then said, “Who’s Rex Parker?” From the look on her face, you’d have thought she'd just swallowed a mouthful of lemon juice.

I asked why she wanted to know. She said, “He doesn’t have much nice to say, does he?” In critiquing my two most recent puzzles, Rex had written,

“This is one of those puzzles that is technically impressive … but shows signs of strain because of its high level of difficulty”

and

“The worst letter …the last letter I filled in …Thought I was done, but no. DINTS (1A: Forces)????? When is the last time you, or anyone, used that word in the plural, or in any way excepting in the phrase ‘by DINT of’ something or other? Ugh.”

I laughed and told my friend, “Those are the nicest critiques I’ve ever received from Rex.”

Vic

Mel Rosen

Thanks, Jim!

Will has said he receives ten times the number of puzzles he could print. That's a lot of slush pile to go through. He's selecting what he thinks is the best he gets. He's got the assignment, so he does the job the way he sees fit.

I meet weekly with eight or ten local solvers to chat about the most recent NYT Sunday puzzle. Every one of them has likes and dislikes ... one automatically boos any brand name; another, any foreign word no matter how clear the clue is; another, any partial phrase; another, any theme with puns; another, any express or implied drug reference. And so on.

To them and the critical bloggers I say: That's what makes horse racing.

Steve Littman

When people say that the puzzles are getting easier, I tell them they're just getting better at them.

When people say the puzzles are getting to predictable, I tell them they just have more experience than before.

Alan DerKazarian

There's no arguing that the talent pool is shrinking for the NYT. How many puzzles are Quigley, Gaffney, Tausig, Berry, Shenk et al. still sending to the NYT? Probably not that many, so Will has to get his puzzles from somewhere. Having said that, I do think Rex has preconditioned himself to look at the flaws of the NYT puzzles rather than their strengths. Take my own puzzle from the 11/7 NYT. It didn't get a very good reception from Rex and yet made Matt Gaffney's list of 5 best puzzles in November (to my great surprise). That's quite a difference in opinion from 2 top puzzle critics. I should also mention that in Matt's list of the best 5 puzzles from October, 3 of them were from the NYT! That's quite a feat when you consider all of the quality independent puzzles that are being published out there. Will and the NYT are doing just fine, thank you very much.

Zulema

Thank you, Jim. This needed to be said.

I'm a lawyer too

Fascinating discussion and one long past due.

I'm not sure where I stand on this but I did want to take issue with Judge Vic's objections since I think he misrepresented Jim's intent. Of course bloggers have First Amendment rights to be rude or even cruel. Jim never said they should stop. In fact, in his second-to-last paragraph, he said just the opposite. As I read it, he was trying to say that despite the negativity (and yes, often, cruelty and rudeness) of much of the commentary from the loudest voices, there are other opinions that don't seem to get the same airplay.

If Matt Ginsberg's reluctance to submit new puzzles because it's not worth the public humiliation from the blogs is a common sentiment then that is indeed sad, but for better or for worse it's part of the modern world. Fortunately, so is critiquing the critics.

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