December 13, 2005

Polemic on the future of crosswords

I'm lucky. When I reached the age at which a kid can manage more challenging adult crosswords, Games magazine had begun publishing, and I started subscribing (and have subscribed for a good 25 years or so). Games gave gainful employment to an assemblage of puzzle professionals who were turning crosswords inside out. Over time, of course, that generation of puzzle editors and creators ended up in charge of the best newspaper and magazine crosswords. While ERNE and OLEO still show up far more often in puzzles than in daily conversation, at least the need to summon up the names of Indonesian trees is a thing of the past; dry obscurities have been supplanted by wordplay, pop culture, modern technology, vernacular phrases, trade names, and other words more reflective of the world we live in. This is a good thing from my perspective. (I don't much enjoy the older puzzles Barry Haldiman collects each year for Litzmas—most pre-Shortz, pre-Newman, pre-Games crosswords strike me as just plain not as much fun.)

Now that the changing of the guard is largely complete, it's time to examine the hide-bound traditions that still constrain the art of crossword construction—and consider whether some of them ought to go the way of the ANOA.

There is such strong insistence on symmetry—symmetrical grids, symmetrical theme entries, symmetrical placement of rebus squares. While symmetry is visually pleasing, I wonder how many otherwise fantastic puzzles and themes have been chucked into the trash because the constructor couldn't get a good fill to fit into the constraints of symmetry. In his Mensa Crosswords for the Super Smart book, half of Frank Longo's puzzles deviate from symmetry. It was a fantastic move on the part of Frank and editor Peter Gordon. By moving some black squares around, Frank squeezed some terrific entries into those puzzles, and I haven't heard anyone say their solving enjoyment was lessened by the asymmetry in the grids.

I bet almost everyone who makes themed crosswords has had to discard a favored theme entry because he or she couldn't find another good entry of the same length, or couldn't design a symmetrical grid to accommodate it. Are crossword solvers best served by the sacrifice of great theme entries at the altar of symmetry? Or would more flexibility in the arrangement of theme entries pay off with greater appreciation of a clever theme? (Perhaps the theme clues could be italicized or all-caps to help solvers identify them if the entries weren't symmetrical.) Imagine that you think up a list of theme entries, and the three very best ones are 10, 12, and 13 letters long. Are solvers grateful if you discard the best ones and instead use the eighth best entry from your list because it had the right number of letters?

Another tradition that can limit crossword constructors is the "rule" that two forms of a word should not appear in the same puzzle. There are deviations from this rule—note SERF BORED and BORER in this weekend's Boston Globe/LA Weekly crossword by Hex, and EAT ON and ATE in Ben Tausig's Sunday NYT. These deviations probably bugged some people who are enmeshed in the crossword world, but does the average solver care, or even notice? Probably not. If you construct, have you ever had to change a word you really liked just to avoid a quasi-duplication in a crossing entry? I bet you have. I certainly don't quibble with not using the same word more than once in a puzzle, but having a pair of closely related ones just might not be so terrible.

Some editors are said to impose strict limits on the number of allowable abbreviations, partial entries (e.g., ON A "___ dare"), or proper nouns. Obscure abbreviations for government programs, for example, don't enhance a puzzle, but I doubt most solvers are bothered by more familiar abbreviatons (especially if they have lively clues). Which entry is better: MPAA or OLEO? RFK or UTA? I vote for the abbreviations. If a partial entry can be clued well and is needed to facilitate the inclusion of top-notch entries nearby, I don't mind. As for proper nouns, quality definitely matters. This Monday's NYT puzzle had about 25 capitalized entries, including STUTZ, EGGO, and SHREK—possibly more proper nouns than some editors would be willing to accept. However, these entries are qualitatively different from (and better than) oddly spelled or obscure names that are quite limited in how they can be clued (e.g., LUISE, ENZO, PATTI, the LEINE river). I suppose the editors need to proclaim certain limits to forestall submission of truly abysmal puzzles, but I hope they are all flexible enough to accept a good and entertaining puzzle even if it exceeds the caps for certain categories of entries.

Granted, a puzzle that is great and hews to all the traditional guidelines is more elegant (or at least more hard-fought) than one that dispenses with the rules. But what is the primary purpose of a crossword? To provide entertainment for the solver—all solvers, not just the tiny minority who construct, compete at Stamford, kibitz in the NYT Today's Puzzle forum, and otherwise obsess about crosswords. Maybe, just maybe, there is a place for the imperfect-but-highly-entertaining puzzle—one that bends the rules—alongside the elegance of the more rare "perfect" puzzle.

Solvers, constructors, editors: What do you think? Are you open to stretching the boundaries of the black and white squares?