Friday, July 12, 2013

Project Update, Peter Abide, Kenneth Haxton, Arthur Schulman's Response to a Maleska Rejection, and the War on Fill

Despite the summer heat, we're continuing to make steady progress on the litzing front!  Friday night, Mark Diehl started off the week with 14 puzzles and put us at exactly 10,300 on the litzing thermometer!  Sunday morning, Denny Baker sent in 7 puzzles, and then on Tuesday, Tom Pepper sent in another 7.  Mark wound up the week with a mega-batch of 28 puzzles on Wednesday!  And on the proofreading front, Todd Gross sent in 21 puzzles.  Thanks so much, everybody!

After the metapuzzle contest was over, I received an e-mail from New York Times constructor Peter Abide.  Peter mentioned that Kenneth Haxton, a musician, writer, and pre-Shortzian constructor who also published one puzzle in the Times during the Shortz era, had lived in Peter's hometown in Mississippi.  To Peter's knowledge, he and Haxton are the only Mississippians to have had their crosswords published in The New York Times.  Peter directed me to a fascinating Web page about Kenneth Haxton's life and work.  To read the Kenneth Haxton biography and interview, click here or on the Pre-Shortzian Constructors tab above.  Thanks again, Peter!

I've long been seeking one of Maleska's famous rejection letters to post on this blog.  Arthur Schulman, whose interview is currently third from the top on the Pre-Shortzian Constructor Interviews page, generously offered to send along some correspondence he had with Maleska back in 1977, which happened to include a Sunday puzzle rejection.  At first I was most excited about the rejection letter; I soon discovered, however, that the discussion between Arthur and Gene about the crossword puzzle scene at that time was far more interesting!

I find it fascinating that crossword solvers' attitudes have changed so much over the years—at first, solvers were leery of new, twisty gimmicks; nowadays, many are much more focused on the quality of the nonthematic fill and clues.  This attitude shift seems to have been an outgrowth of the revolutionary creativity "new wave" constructors and editors brought to crossword puzzles.  With the place of innovative, ingenious puzzles now assured, constructors, editors, and solvers have been able to turn their attention to perfecting nonthematic fill.  The so-called war on nonthematic fill has been bolstered, if not led, by crossword bloggers as well.  After you read the correspondence below, you may want to check out (or reread) Tyler Hinman's "The War on Fill," an excellent piece written more than 30 years later about the attitudes of many modern solvers.  Whether or not these attitudes represent majority opinion is unclear—I suspect that plenty of people would rather deal with a few less-than-stellar, or even downright bad, entries in an otherwise stunning puzzle than spend their time on a solidly filled construction with a more ho-hum theme.  Casual solvers can overlook or forgive a lot if they love a puzzle's gimmick, but if they're bored, they lose interest; serious or competitive solvers, on the other hand, may feel quite the opposite.  Ultimately, the best puzzles combine terrific themes with sparkling—or at least solid and fair—fill.

Without further ado, here is the correspondence:

Over Jordan
Wareham, Mass, 02571
Oct. 15, 1977

Dear Arthur,

     Times change!  As soon as I received your “UP” puzzle, I farmed it out to three test-solvers in the hope that the response would be favorable.  However, all three turned thumbs down.  One summed it up by saying:  “A feat for the constructor, but a bore for the solver!”  After carefully examining your puzzle, I must admit that this tour de force does not meet the demands of my present fan mail.
     Incidentally, the reaction to “Change of Pace” was negative.  We are definitely in a different era!
     Have you ever tried a quotation puzzle?  I’m looking for a good one.  Take a look at my S&S Crossword Book of Quotations at your bookstore.
     May I use your puzzle in the Farrar-Maleska books?

All best,

Gene

19 October 1977

Dear Gene,

     I appreciate your frank note, but feel obliged to reply.
     I wouldn’t bother with Sunday puzzle constructions unless I thought they were publishable.  Obviously you and your three “test-solvers” don’t share my high estimation of my UP-puzzle.  Equally obviously, you as the Editor have the right and responsibility to set the tone of and standards for the puzzles you publish.  Still, the following points should be borne in mind.
     (1)  The more densely thematic a puzzle, the more difficult its construction.  It is easy to put together a puzzle with only a few long entries relating to its central theme.  If construction standards were thrown out the window—if, e.g., unkeyed letters and asymmetry were permitted—puzzles could be made more thematic, doubtless with greater “interest” to the solver, but at a cost I doubt you’d be willing to pay.  During Will Weng’s reign, construction standards were sacrificed to Weng’s idiosyncratically horrendous sense of humor.  The best constructors were repelled, and we still are suffering from his taste in themes and definitions.
     (2)  One can be too sensitive to letters of criticism from solvers.  Only a tiny percentage of solvers would think of writing letters to The Puzzle Editor, and these are almost certainly not a random sample of typical solvers.  It seems to me that the Times should cultivate taste for good crosswords of several kinds, rather than pander to the lowest common denominator among its solvers.  (Here in Charlottesville, the local newspaper recently was attacked by many letters to The Editor for switching from the mindless 13x13 syndicated puzzles to those edited by M. Farrar.)
     (3)  A related point to (2).  If The NATION, HARPER’S, The ATLANTIC, and NEW YORK Magazine polled its readers, I’m sure that a large majority would prefer American-style puzzles to the British-style puzzles they now publish.  Yet I hope you’ll agree that these outlets would be making a mistake if they responded to the majoritarian view.  It is also almost certainly true that, as a result of their efforts, the “market” for British-style puzzles is much larger than it was before.
     (4)  When I submitted my CHANGE-OF-PACE puzzle, it was meant merely as a sample of the genre, and I admit to have been astonished that you published it so readily.  Far better constructions of its type are possible.  What I fail utterly to understand is how or why reaction to this particular example should determine its future.  The puzzle was unthematic.  Its potential, it seems to me, lies more as an occasional substitute for The Times’ dailies than for its Sunday puzzles.  What I hoped would be clear from CHANGE-OF-PACE was that new words and new word-combinations are made possible with a construction in which word boundaries are marked by bars instead of by black boxes.  It thus gives constructors more flexibility and thereby provides solvers with greater interest than could be met by standard black-box constructions.
     (5)  I would be surprised if many solvers shared the view of your test-solver that my up-puzzle was boring.  It would be helpful to know what bores and what interests this solver; I’m sure our tastes differ.  Be that as it may, a puzzle is a problem-solving exercise.  The interest in my up-puzzle is that, even when the solver has learned that an entry is almost certain to contain the word UP, he still has to figure out what the entry is.  It is seldom obvious, since many entries are idioms.
     (6)  Under Margaret Farrar’s editorship, only four of my puzzles were initially rejected.  One contained the word LEWD, which Margaret felt too risqué; one LIPOMA, which was thought to remind solver shut-ins of their plight, apparently by remote association; and one ALEXANDER DUBCEK, which would have served to remind readers of the “bad news” they got enough of on the first page of The Times.  The LEWD and LIPOMA puzzles were easy to modify, and Margaret finally published them in The Times.  The A.D. puzzle was published in one of the Series M.F. edited at the time.  The only puzzle I have ever submitted which did not see the light of day contained a spelling error (EAST “LYNN”), my fault obviously, and one that could not be rectified.  I say all this because I think my puzzles are pretty good, and because I think that much of what The Times has published in recent years (largely under Weng’s editorship) has been decidedly second-rate.  I welcome your comments here.
     I would not wish to be misunderstood.  You are one of the best constructors the U.S. has known, and I am delighted that you are editing puzzles for The Times, a job for which you clearly have great skill and talent.  I hope that the foregoing remarks will be taken in the light of this high esteem.

Best regards,

Arthur

P.S.  Go ahead and use the UP-puzzle in a book, if you wish.  But let me know how much you’ll pay.

10/26/77

Dear Arthur,

     Thanks for taking the time to write me such a long letter.  I wish I had the hours to reply in full.   All I can say now is that I will carefully consider your advice.
     An excellent British-style puzzle will appear on Dec. 4.  I do hope I get an avalanche of “More!” letters because I like that type of puzzle myself.  But the straight P.&A. fans are a vociferous bunch who resist change.  Of course, I’ll overrule them if the rest of the fans give me the green signal.
     Times daily puzzle fans are even more conservative.  Also, I wonder if you know that the dailies are syndicated in 35 newspapers from California to Florida and Maine.  My mail indicates that the vast majority are delighted with the present daily puzzles.  Would you rock such a boat if you were editor?  How many “subway solvers” would immediately turn away if they were presented with bars instead of those familiar, comfortable block squares?  Let the mags experiment.  Their clientele is far different from mine.
     Yes, Will Weng published some second-rate puzzles.  He also pioneered in giving fans new twists.  The strange thing is that a lot of them are gung-ho for such stuff.  The Easter puzzle by Hansen, in which fans were required to draw eggs, caused a flood of favorable mail and only two on the negative side.  The same thing occurred when I published Maura Jacobson’s NOT SO SYMBOL AS π in which the defs were symbols like .  for SEPARATE CHECKS.  Times do change, Arthur, whether we veterans like it or not.
     As for payment in the Farrar-Maleska series, I frankly don’t know.  Margaret handles that end of the deal.  I imagine it’s about half of what the Times pays.  As soon as I hear from her, I’ll let you know.

All best,

Gene

P.S.  Thanks so much for your kind words re my own puzzles!

Thanks again, Arthur, for sending this piece along and allowing me to post it!  Thoughts, anyone?


6 comments:

  1. Very interesting. Thanks for sharing! For my part, I wonder if it really has to be either/or with regard to interesting themes versus high-quality fill. How about we give solvers both? Easier said than done, of course, but not impossible. If the theme density is too high to allow for squeaky-clean fill, perhaps the constructor should eliminate a theme entry or two.

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  2. Merely in the interests of accuracy, I should point out that Greenville MS was my home from 1960-70, and it was during that time frame that I started solving crosswords. I knew Mr Haxton and his son Brooks, a noted poet, was a year ahead of me in school. Peter Abide mentored for me in crossword construction. We came together not knowing that we shared a hometown or that his mother was a close friend it my sister. Vic Fleming

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  3. Awesome. I would love to see more stuff like this, if it's out there. :)

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  4. Stephanie SpadacciniJuly 13, 2013 at 8:09 AM

    Merl Reagle has some good ones (and I use "good" in the juicy sense here). I tossed mine years ago--didn't want to keep that bad (and I use "bad" in its usual sense here) stuff in my house.

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  5. Thanks for the comments, everyone--I'm glad you enjoyed the post!

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