September 06, 2007

Asymmetrical crosswords

As you noted if you checked out Frank Longo's themeless "Weekend Warrior" in the New York Sun, the grid strays from the conventional crossword rule of rotational symmetry. It doesn't have left-right symmetry, either. Nope. It's asymmetrical. (Picture of the blank grid after the cut.)

Crossword symmetry has its ardent upholders who defend it on the basis of elegance, aesthetics, and the way that the symmetry requirement helps keep out the untalented riffraff who might otherwise flood crossword editors with their subpar efforts.

Being flexible about loosening these strictures also has proponents. Among the flexible types is Peter Gordon, editor of the Sun crosswords and puzzle editor for Sterling Publishing, which released Longo's second book of "cranium crushers". In that book of themeless puzzles, half the crosswords were symmetrical and half weren't. (I think Peter does still insist on symmetry in themed puzzles, though he's published at least one or two asymmetrical themers in the Sun. One had all 12 signs of the zodiac, and they make a great grouping but not one that lends itself to crossword symmetry.)

While I can certainly appreciate the accomplishment represented by constructing a perfectly symmetrical themeless puzzle, I have also heard of constructors filling an incredible half of a grid with sparking entries that lend themselves to mind-bendingly clever clues—but finding it impossible to fill the rest of that grid. Why should those really yummy possibilities end up in the trash for the sake of preserving a particular layout of black squares? Why not move those black squares around if needed, and pack the puzzle even more densely with excellent fill? Wouldn't the resulting puzzle be more fun than one with a lot of compromise entries (e.g., a blah "roll your own" word like RESTRESS) needed to make things fit?

I also respect the aesthetic sensibility that makes people love symmetry and the artistic elegance it facilitates. However, there's another art argument for the other side. As Christine Anderson eloquently stated via e-mail a few weeks ago:

Although I've never made a puzzle, I would think that much of the joy of it would be in the free creativity, which would take you who knows where when you let it flow.

Not only am I reminded of the Academy/Impressionist controversy, but of the growth of music from the classical era (when symmetry was king) through the romantic era, when symmetry was, if not entirely rejected, much more loosely applied—used less as a rule and more as a form or seed from which to blossom.

Beethoven's first three symphonies—including the crossword-famed Eroica (3rd)—are highly classical in form. But then he branches out and his genius culminates in the amazing 9th. What would music be like if he'd felt constrained to stick to a rigid classical format? Horrifying thought.

For that matter, even Mozart's later work was much wider-ranging and tending toward romantic era freedom than his earlier work. Genius will be genius, regardless of constraints, regardless of the outcome.

Let the innovation run rampant, run riot! Who knows what amazing things will happen? Suppression of new forms seems so—Spanish Inquisition.

So, how do you feel about bending the symmetry rules when a puzzle calls for it? Do you have differing symmetry preferences for themed and vs. themeless puzzles?