Fifteen Minutes of Fame

Fifteen Minutes of Fame

In defense of a celebrity entry


Solver Bo Curry of Redwood City, CA, recently wrote to remonstrate about Puzzle #3333, and in particular this clue at 9D:

SHARON GLESS Tyne Daly’s costar and lead in Hunter admitted to going naked in Malaysia? (6,5)

His e-mail decried what he called a “troubling trend” exemplified by that grid entry.

There is apparently a growing temptation to include answers which are more and more highly topical, even esoteric. Great care must be taken when clues refer to celebrities, the more ephemeral the more dangerous. All educated readers might be expected to know the name of, e.g. Henry James, but I doubt that all educated solvers will know the name of Sharon Gless (at least one such didn’t know it, fersure). This is especially problematic if, as has been known to happen, the puzzles are later reissued in the magazine or in book form for another generation of solvers.

Mr. Curry raises a number of important points, which are worth pulling apart. One is the issue of celebrities and their ephemeral claim to notability. There are solvers (and constructors) who prefer their grids to be stocked only with timeless names and well-established vocabulary. That isn’t us. We prefer to use a mix of the tried-and-true and the up-to-date—to join Henry James and Britney Spears, as it were, in a cruciverbal pas de deux. That’s the sort of variety that keeps a crossword lively and unpredictable.

Secondly, there’s the more general matter of familiarity, and trying to determine what the average solver might reasonably be expected to know. This applies not only to proper names but to words in general and to a range of knowledge. What one solver regards as esoteric strikes another as utterly rudimentary, and vice versa (we touched on this issue here), and the best we can do is to try to keep things within a golden mean, relying on our test-solvers to let us know if we’ve gone too far into obscurity. But we do not regard it as a flaw if a solver learns a new word or name in the course of solving one of our puzzles.

Also, Mr. Curry cautions us against puzzles whose timeliness might limit their appeal to later generations of solvers, but we gaily spurn his advice. Puzzles, like all forms of entertainment, are meant to be enjoyed in the here and now. Posterity may or may not like what we do, but surely a few TV stars more or less will not make the difference.

In the end, though, the issues Mr. Curry raises are a matter of balance—and in truth we are not in very serious disagreement. Famous names, or indeed words of any kind, can get into the puzzle either because they’re inherently notable, or because they lend themselves to particularly vibrant and interesting wordplay. (Or occasionally because there’s no other word that will fit in the grid, but that’s rare.)

We readily concede that Sharon Gless, the co-star of the ’80s TV series Cagney and Lacey, has a somewhat tenuous claim to notability. She’s a B-list star at best. But on the other hand, we thought the nonce coinage “sarongless” was a keeper—and Mr. Curry, in a P.S., agrees. And that’s why she appeared in the puzzle.

This week’s clueing challenge: Write a clue for TYNE DALY that would justify its inclusion in a puzzle grid. 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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