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John Farmer
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Hi, Jim. That was a thoughtful and provocative post, and likewise for the many comments. A couple of things going on here, it seems: one, about the blogs; the other, about the NYT. First point, I should say I'm not a big fan of the blog format. It's pretty much all we have now, and it is what it is, but I find it limited in ways. We have about three or four voices that dominate the discussion about crosswords each day. Anyone is free to chime in with a comment, of course, but that's not quite the same thing. I'm not knocking the bloggers for how it works (and I've had a blog myself). I give the bloggers a lot of credit for their efforts in writing posts every day and building a community. A lot of work and little or no pay. Kudos to them! But I'm still a fan of the old open forum format. In a very democratic way, everyone had an equal say. It wasn't perfect, but it did result in a much different conversation. One other point about the main bloggers today: Deb (at NYT central), Amy (and team), Jeff (who somehow got in the club with more than three letters in his name), and P. Rex (i.e., Pseudonosaurus Rex). I find it hard to say much about them as a group. Each is very different, to my eyes, in approach, tone, etc. Once upon a time I used to read just about anything that was written about crosswords on the web every day. Not so anymore. There's a lot more written these days, for one thing, and I am busy and just don't have the time. But I also cut back because it was detracting from the very reason I was doing crosswords in the first place: my own enjoyment. I don't mind reading the pluses and minuses of a particular puzzle -- probably not how I would do it though I suppose it goes with the territory. But there's a certain sourness that infects some blog posts and when I see that I wish the writer had just taken the day off. I have little patience for rants, insults, a variety of dismissive comments, and grand proclamations about what puzzles should be as if the future of civilization lies in the balance. Maybe that's what the readers like, but I can't help but think it's a big turn-off to the wider community of solvers who continue to do the puzzles because they like the darned things. So do the critiques of puzzles on the blogs help make crosswords better? In some ways, over time, I think they do. The daily give-and-take about fill, theme construction, and many other aspects of crosswords probably does help bend the curve a bit toward more consistent and cleaner puzzles. But I also think a lot of what's said on blogs works against puzzles. An environment that punishes those who fail to measure up to a blog writer's personal and at times arbitrary standards is not an environment that engenders the best from puzzle makers. It can have a chilling effect, as Matt Ginsberg describes. Creativity works best when it's safe to take chances. But if fear of failure enters the mind, the constructor is more likely to pull some punches, go for the safe instead of the daring choice. Over time, what you get are puzzles that may be more technically proficient, but also less adventurous. There's a reason why "don't read the reviews" is a mantra for some writers, musicians, movie-makers, and others. I know crossword constructors who follow that advice, and at times I have myself. Over the years I've been treated fair enough, with a few exceptions, but the longer I'm at it, the less I learn directly from others. When I'm done with a puzzle, I already have a good sense of its strengths and weaknesses, and sometimes the best reaction to see is no reaction at all -- no complaints about a flaw I couldn't fix or a very tough section that I worked hard to get right. It's not that feedback can't be helpful, but there is also a lot of noise. Some comments just leave me scratching my head. One example: someone once wrote that he enjoyed solving one of my puzzles, but thinking about it afterward, he realized that he wasn't really wowed by it. It was a good but not an outstanding puzzle, in his mind, not something of the first rank. So in the end, he was disappointed. What do you do with someone like that, who can talk himself from enjoyment to disappointment in a matter of minutes? He doesn't even trust what he likes. For him and others like him, there will always be a more perfect puzzle in his own imagination, and the puzzle on the page will almost never measure up. Another type of comment that gets me is when my opinion is dismissed because I'm a constructor. I'm told there are puzzles out there that only constructors can like. I may like a puzzle for things that apparently are not important to the "pure solver." Let's put aside the fact that I've been solving puzzles for years longer than I've been making them. By what convoluted logic does a person who makes puzzles have a less valid opinion than others? Are Bob Dylan's opinions about music automatically suspect? Should we not listen to Martin Scorsese when he talks about movies? Not to compare myself or other constructors to those greats, but you get the point. And does it ever dawn on people that every single puzzle they solve has been made by someone with a "constructor's point of view"? Whatever it is that means. Now I have little time left to get to thoughts about the NYT and the competition. In brief: There have been lots of changes in the puzzle biz the past five to ten years. Online distribution, top name constructors going independent, more venues. It is a lot more competitive than the old days when the NYT was heads and shoulders above anything else. But to compare the Times and the indies is to compare apples and oranges. The Times runs seven or eight puzzles a week; indie venues, usually one or two each. The Times relies on freelancers, including newcomers; the indies, often big names who have many years of making puzzles. The indies are edgier, more topical, and get in pop culture you won't find in the Times. They're aimed for a narrow audience (like the blogs, btw) rather than the broad audience of the Times and other papers. Are there differences between the Times and the indies. Yep. Is one better than the other? On any given day, probably, and on average, it depends what you're looking for. Are puzzles getting better all around? You bet. Does the Times do an excellent job serving its audience? I certainly think so.
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Dec 8, 2013