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Evan Birnholz
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Thanks for the post, Jim. As one of Rex's frequent commenters and occasional substitutes, I have a few points in response. 1. First, though I myself was pretty critical of yesterday's SQU- puzzle, I'm not of the opinion that the NYT puzzles are declining. I still solve them because they're fun. Will's done a great job over the years of bringing new forms and constructors into the fold. I think there's certainly more fresh themes and less obscure stuff than what you'd see from the Maleska era. Of course it's impossible to please everyone all of the time, and when you run 365 puzzles a year and get who-knows-how-many submissions each week, you're going to run puzzles with theme ideas that some solvers might consider worn out. But having said that, I don't think it's unreasonable to point out the flaws in a NYT puzzle's execution. You say there's too much focus on symmetry and consistency, but when the NYT's own publisher specification sheet on says that themes need to be applied consistently throughout a puzzle, it follows that they value symmetry and consistency pretty highly and encourage constructors to do same. Call me a traditionalist, but I think the genius of crosswords is that even when they're tricky and break from conventions, there's always a method to the madness -- when a theme ignores symmetry/consistency for essentially no reason, then the puzzle makes less sense to me. I guess I don't see the downside to making a puzzle's theme both symmetrical and consistent -- it's not like there needs to be a choice between having a perfectly symmetrical/consistent theme and having a fun puzzle. And while I agree that certain puzzle forms should not be dismissed outright, it bears mentioning that even Will has moved away from some themes that we might have seen regularly 15 years ago. He almost never runs quotation puzzles anymore. Maybe the this-word-follows-the-first-word-of-every-theme-answer gimmick will be phased out many years from now -- who knows? 2. While I can understand your frustration with bloggers whose opinions about the NYT puzzle are decidedly more negative than yours, I think you're still oversimplifying "bloggers" as a group and leaving out a good reason that they're quite valuable: They've helped make puzzles better. The blogs are a great tool for gathering input on the puzzle experience and sparking debate about the puzzle's merits among lots of different solvers -- not just speed-solvers. Even though Will has (understandably) expressed frustration about Rex's commentary too, he has also said that he has become a better editor as a result of reading Rex's criticism. I can speak from personal experience that reading Rex's and Amy's blogs and participating on them have made me not just a far better solver than I was four years ago, but a much better constructor -- they've helped give me a good sense about what works and what doesn't in a puzzle. You critique them for being too narrowly focused on weak, short fill. But just by reading and commenting, I've built and adapted my word lists and have done a much better job of cleaning up junk in my own grids than I used to. Obviously, if Rex's or Amy's style isn't to your liking, that's fine. But I doubt I would have ever been published in the NYT were it not for reading their daily insights. (I hasten to add that I also read Jeff Chen's daily commentary as well, and there's no question he's a great guy. I have no problem if he views a puzzle more positively than Rex or Amy does. It's good to get that perspective too and he often makes good points -- in fact, he's made me consider the idea that Monday puzzles might actually be the hardest ones to create, which is something I hadn't really thought about before.) 3. You write that bloggers often dismiss "crosswords that push the envelope." That's confusing to me. Both Rex and Amy have lavished praise on puzzles that use a really intricate trick or have lots of modern, slangy terms that might not normally pass the breakfast test -- both of them loved Patrick Blindauer's DOUBLE FEATURE puzzle from July 25, 2013, for instance. BEQ puzzles often get high marks on Amy's website. But maybe this is a terminology issue. I've read some of your previous posts, so if I understand what you mean by "push the envelope," I'm guessing you're referring to puzzles that accomplish a certain grid feat like quadruple stacks or Joe Krozel's various low word-count puzzles. I actually subbed for Rex on one of those puzzles last June. I'll reiterate what I wrote there: I'm not usually a fan of that type of puzzle either. Because while it's impressive in its own way for a constructor to build grids with a high degree of fill-difficulty, I find it's not as fun of a solve because too often the result is a puzzle with way too many compromises for my taste -- lots of crappy entries crossing the stacks, or jammed in a huge 6x6 corner (Tyler Hinman made that same point in a well-read blog post last year called "The War on Fill"). I recognize that that kind of grid will still appeal to many solvers, and I don't want to suggest that it's utterly impossible to execute a quadruple-stack well. But ultimately, I just think the answers usually end up being fresher and livelier in a 66- or a 72-word themeless puzzle, with less junk to go along with it. Anyway, I meant all of this in the spirit of joining in a good conversation, so I appreciated reading your post even if I disagreed with some of what you wrote (as I hope you'll do the same for this comment).
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Dec 5, 2013