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Surprise! I decided to mix it up a little bit and include a themed crossword for the first time on this site. I mentioned in my last post that the freestyle puzzle I constructed was done entirely by hand; I continued in that vein for this one. This was also entirely constructed by hand.
However, instead of talking about the puzzle in this post, I’d like to put in my two cents about the discussion generated from the April 14, 2015, New York Times puzzle. If you’re reading this, you’re almost certainly familiar with it by now. If you don’t know about it, every letter in that whole 15×15 puzzle grid by Bruce Haight is one of eight different letters: AEIGHRST (including the central revealer, EIGHT). The grid was riddled with entries that are widely considered awkward, if not straight-up crosswordese.
The discussion, thus, gravitated toward two main opposing sides: (a) It’s All About The Fill™, or (b) the constructor should be given some leeway in terms of questionable fill if the thematic concept requires it and is pushing the bounds of creativity. (Both of these viewpoints are perfectly valid and sane points of view!) For some reason, we as a society like to make things either black or white; if you’re not with one side, you’re with the other, and there is very little gray area, very little room for discussion in the middle. It seemed like the solvers either loved the puzzle because they loved the idea of every word within an eight-letter set, or they hated the puzzle because of the many cringe-inducing entries.
As you know if you’ve visited this site before, you know that I am all about that fill (‘bout that fill, no clutter) in my freestyle puzzles. I have no tolerance for partial phrases, plural abbreviations, and other such entries in my constructions – they aren’t even in my word list. Thus, it may surprise you to learn that I am not in the camp that this puzzle had too many bad entries to be publishable in such a wide-reaching venue as the New York Times.
For starters, I was curious, so I set out to see if I could, for lack of a better way to put it, do better. I used the same constraints – same eight letters, same number of words and black squares. The only difference is that my word list has no partial phrases, no plural abbreviations, and not that much crosswordese, so I wasn’t using any of that. After quite a few hours of trying… frankly, I couldn’t do better than the grid in the New York Times. In the interest of full disclosure, I was going to post that puzzle alongside the one I already made for today. However, since I couldn’t get the fill close to a quality that I would consider to publish on my site, I decided not to go through with it. I’m not saying that if I can’t do better, no one can, but my one-person effort was enough to prove to myself that it would be a very difficult task to complete a “clean” grid under those constraints.
But, but, but: does that mean that, if it’s difficult or impossible to execute a good puzzle idea with squeaky-clean, or reasonably clean, fill, that the idea should be abandoned or relegated to a site with less of an audience? The very fact that there’s an argument about this issue means that not everybody will think an idea, or its execution, is good… and not everybody will think an idea, or its execution, is bad. Some people think that some bad fill is completely unforgivable no matter how good the idea is. Some people think that a good puzzle idea is worth a bit of detritus in the fill. Is it the editor’s job to cull only the puzzles from the submission pile that will please everyone all the time (as if that were even possible)? Is it the editor’s job to print puzzles that will always cater to one set of tastes or another? If it were either of those things, no editor would last too long. When you cater to such a wide audience as the set of New York Times crossword puzzle solvers is, should you play it safe? The puzzle would get boring if you do. Is it even possible to play it safe to such a wide and varied audience? Of course not.
So where do you draw the line between what is publishable and what isn’t? What I find disappointing (but not shocking) is that there is a not insignificant number of crossword puzzle solvers and constructors – especially some (but not all) of those with the loudest voices in the critics’ community and some who follow them – who find a definite place to draw this line, and even be confrontational about where they draw this line. (Of course, it’s well known that the most confrontational and controversial public voice is going to be the one that gets the biggest audience… that’s just the way it goes.) This is disappointing to me because, as a group, crossword people are the most open-minded people, the people most amenable to diversity of creative expression and interpretation of ideas, of any set of people that I know. This theoretical line shouldn’t be a razor-thin jet-black line drawn in permanent ink; I thought the only black-and-white lines in this art form were within the crossword grid. It shouldn’t even be a line; the gray area is so diffuse that I couldn’t even begin to tell where it starts and ends.
Do I think there were way, way too many bad entries in this puzzle grid? Yes, of course I do. Do I think that the creative idea of this puzzle justified the huge pile of bad fill in the grid? No, of course I don’t. There were lots of demerits, and I found myself cringing quite often solving that puzzle. I frankly didn’t enjoy the solve at all because of those bad entries. But do I think that this puzzle absolutely, positively should have been passed over for this venue because I didn’t enjoy solving it? No! Just because I didn’t enjoy the solve, just because I think that it had too much bad fill for my tastes, doesn’t mean that it’s an awful puzzle; I’m not so egotistical to think that my standards are the standards by which a puzzle should be judged for publishing. Just because I didn’t enjoy the solve doesn’t mean that nobody else who solves the puzzles in this venue will; many people did enjoy it. If I hate eating tuna tartare because I don’t like some of the ingredients, does that mean that I should throw a fit, say that it’s the worst food ever, and opine that I think that it shouldn’t be served at my favorite restaurant, even if I know that a lot of other people who eat there enjoy it? If I were the Michelin-star chef who made the dish, and I heard this complaining, should I stop serving it on my menu because I’m afraid that some people aren’t going to like the way it tastes?
I can come at this issue not only from a solver’s perspective but also a constructor’s view. Case in point: I constructed a puzzle a while ago that found a home here. I’ll be honest: I don’t think that I, personally, would enjoy solving this if I weren’t the constructor. Ironic, right? When I constructed the puzzle, I knew that some people would definitely not like it; I also knew that some people would definitely really like it. Did I sit on it because it was a “stunt”? No. Did I sit on it because I was afraid of the segment of the solving population that I knew wasn’t going to like it? No. Conversely, did I send it out because I wanted to be a showoff? No! Just like solvers like to solve puzzles after they’re constructed, constructors like to solve puzzles within puzzles as they’re being constructed. “How can I work within my constraints to complete this grid with these extreme self-imposed restrictions? And will these constraints be so ridiculous that no solver could ever like this?”
Even though it didn’t sit well with some solvers, including me, it was still clearly enjoyed by many, and it carved out another little niche within the domain of the cruciverbal arts. Those can’t be bad things, can they?