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Critical Theory | The Nation

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Word Salad

Kosman and Picciotto on their Nation puzzle, cryptic crosswords, wordplay and puzzles in general.

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Critical Theory

In our last post, we argued that crossword critics can be inspired by love and respect for the object of their critiques. This generated some discussion in the comments, which you can check out, but also among our Facebook friends. While we still agree with everything we said then, in this post, we will express agreement with some objections that were raised to our basic point. Do we contradict ourselves? Very well, then, we contradict ourselves: we are large, we contain multi-dudes. Or a couple of dudes, anyway.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, puzzle creators were among the ones who argued that crossword criticism is pointless, too negative or just uninteresting. For example, Puzzability constructor Amy Goldstein writes:

Even as a puzzle writer, I’m not really interested in reading about or discussing the details of the daily puzzle. I’m interested in solving them, and then moving on.

Our guess is that a majority of puzzle solvers feel pretty much the same way—perhaps even a large majority. It’s impossible to know for sure, since those solvers are by definition not the ones who frequent the blogs. Editors need to keep those solvers in mind, and if their numbers are indeed greater, this would have some implications: offending a few critics by breaking a convention may be for the greater good if it results in a more entertaining puzzle for the many.

Game and puzzle designer Mike Selinker writes:

I choose not to read reviews of anything I do, because I’m a much harsher critic of my work than anyone else will ever be.

We can relate! Between us, we have who knows how many decades of experience as solvers, constructors and editors of cryptic crosswords. While we don’t adhere to them 100 percent, we know US cryptic conventions backward and forward. For every single puzzle, we spend much time critiquing each other’s clues, then responding to feedback from at least half a dozen sophisticated test solvers. So frankly, if a critic tells us we are violating one of their cherished expectations, that is hardly news to us.

But then, slavish enforcement of supposed rules is not really what criticism should be about, is it? As we see it:

• Not all constructors need to adhere to the same aesthetic.

• Clear standards can be good, but there is a place for unpredictability and surprises.

• Conventions are not rules, and moreover conventions for a puzzle need not and should not be as rigid as rules for a game.

We welcome thoughtful comments from open-minded cryptic critics, but please tell us something we do not know.

This week’s cryptic challenge: WHITMAN. To comment (and see other readers’ comments), please click on this post’s title and scroll to the bottom of the resulting screen. And now, four links:
• The current puzzle
• Our puzzle-solving guidelines | PDF
• Our e-books (solve past puzzles on your iOS device—many hints provided by the software!)
• A Nation puzzle solver’s blog where every one of our clues is explained in detail. This is also where you can post quibbles, questions, kudos or complaints about the current puzzle, as well as ask for hints.

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