Tuesday, June 11, 2024

Indie puzzle highlights: The return

I stopped doing these a while ago, but Zinna's puzzle below has moved me to try to bring them back. I suspect I'll generally be highlighting fewer puzzles, and I'll be publishing on an irregular schedule, but going more in-depth on the puzzles I do highlight. I might also change my definition of indie, depending on which puzzles I'm moved to write about. We'll see!

June 3: Untitled (Sid Sivakumar, Slate)

June 6: 🐻‍❄️ (zinna, zinna bun) 

June 7: 7/30 ("peak performance") (brooke husic, xwords by a ladee)









Untitled (Sid Sivakumar)

Slate's new crossword feature is off to an excellent start. Under Quiara Vasquez's editorship, it stands out from the pack in its willingness to go weird and buck prevailing trends. Amid a welcome spate of crosswords designed to be accessible to newcomers, the Slate puzzle tends (especially in Quiara's own puzzles) to be filled with original and unusual entries chosen for their interesting letter combinations, plus downright zany ripped-from-the-headlines stuff like RFK JR'S BRAIN and the down entry GALF clued in reference to Samuel Alito's upside-down flag. As those two entries also demonstrate, there's a willingness to reference various dangerous ideologues, which many venues would shy away from, citing the "no bummers" principle. (I also recall YEEZUS with a clue referencing how retrospectively appropriate it is that it features a song called "Black Skinhead.") I sometimes cringe at these, and at some of the more experimental cluing approaches, but I do appreciate the refusal to play things safe.

Another aspect of that is that some of the puzzles will have an isolated pocket of wackiness that you wouldn't normally see except as part of a full-blown theme in a full-sized crossword. One of Ben Zimmer's puzzles, for example, had 16 CARRIAGES in the grid, complete with digits. My favorite example of this so far has been Sid's June 3 puzzle, whose last two across entries, stacked on top of each other, are ENDS LATE ([Runs longer than scheduled]) and END SLATE ([Clapboard filmed at the conclusion of a take]).

I'm on record as being a fan of themes that play with the rule against dupes, and a big part of that is that said "rule" is, especially now, being actively negotiated. It seems to me that it used to be taken as dogma, but is now in flux because it's not entirely clear that the theoretical motivation behind the rule motivates a strict version of it. The commonly-cited justification is that duplicated entries confuse the solver; if they've already filled in WORD in the grid, they're likely to hesitate if another clue seems to call for the answer WORD or WORDING or PASSWORD. But what kinds of dupes, exactly, does that principle rule out? Some editors will disallow any pairs of entries that are etymologically related, but many shared etymologies are non-obvious to the vast majority of solvers and are unlikely to cause any confusion.

Erik Agard is among the editors who frame the rule as something like: if the two entries are asking different questions, then it's not a dupe. For example, the Apple News+ spec sheet says that having ICE CREAM and DRY ICE in the same grid is fine, since they're asking substantially different questions. The NYT editors seem to have gotten more permissive about dupes recently too, allowing things like BEAR TRAPS and TRAPDOOR in the same grid, which suggests that they're following something similar to the "different questions" principle. Patti Varol, in contrast, still maintains a strict rule against etymologically related words, to say nothing of phrases containing the very same word (which has the virtue of being unambiguous, for both submitting constructors and solvers, as to what's expected).

Sid's puzzle explores a weird edge case - entries that are spelled exactly the same, but have totally different meanings because they're parsed differently. I think I recall an indie puzzle (I forget the constructor, unfortunately) that had both RAT-EATEN and RATE A TEN, and this puzzle does the same sort of thing, though this one has the wrinkle that they both use forms of the word END, so the parses aren't entirely distinct. What I love about this is that it forces the solver to reflect on how they feel about dupes. Should this kind of dupe be allowed as a matter of course? My intuitive reaction is that it would be very weird to see a themed 15x15 puzzle that happened to have GOBY and GO BY in it for no theme-related reason - it would feel unintentional and therefore unsatisfying. So it definitely counts as a dupe in my book, but of course Sid's choice is intentional, and it's thoroughly satisfying - satisfying because the entries are literally at the END of the SLATE crossword. It's done thoughtfully, and provides a provocative shock for the solver. And incidentally, it calls into question the "different questions" principle, since these types of pairs definitely asks different questions, but also feel (at least to me) qualitatively different from ICE CREAM and DRY ICE. Maybe the standard should be "different questions AND different answers." Or maybe hoping that a simple and concise standard will cover all possible cases is foolishly optimistic!

🐻‍❄️ (zinna)

In the essays "The Importance of the Single Effect in a Prose Tale" and "The Philosophy of Composition," Edgar Allan Poe takes what he calls "unity of effect" as the guiding principle behind the composition of short stories and poems. For Poe, everything should be in service to the hoped-for effect on the reader. And poems can only achieve unity of effect if they're short enough to be taken in in a single sitting: the pitch of aesthetic excitement that Poe hopes to evoke in the reader can only last for a brief time.

I've been thinking about this lately in terms of crosswords, and particularly the proliferation of minis and midis. I'm not a fan of the recent proliferation of minis (grids that are around 5x5), which are often chosen for reasons that have nothing to do with aesthetics: they're easy to solve on a smartphone, they're cheap to produce, they're compatible with short attention spans, etc. But the proliferation of midis, particularly in indie venues, is more exciting. A lot of these venues are using the midi format to pull off themes, tones, and the like that just wouldn't work in a 15x15 grid. And there's much to be said for using the midi format to achieve something like Poe's unity of effect, which is exactly what Zinna does in this 11x11 grid. (Really, I should say it's a 13x13 grid, though there are no letters in the outermost squares at all.)

In crossword terms, I think of unity of effect mostly as a matter of being completely in control of tone. It's much easier to do that in a midi than in a 15x15 grid, since there are fewer moving parts involved in filling and so it's much easier to exert control over every individual entry. In the middle row, we've got HEART and HANDS, intersecting WRIST and ROSES going down. WRIST is clued as [where a gajra may be tied], referring to a flower garment worn at weddings and other occasions - often made of roses. The puzzle's thematic nexus is clear just from those four entries, and the gentle pastel color gradient in the grid adds to the joyfully loving vibes. (That's why it's fairer to call it a 13x13 grid, since the art is essential to the experience.) In the lower right, there's a cheeky suggestion (but just a suggestion) of eroticism, with LACE clued as [the edge of a nightie, maybe] next to EROS clued as [desire]. The watery secondary theme runs through the two longest downs, SANDCASTLES and INDIAN OCEAN, plus EDDIES, clue as [currents floating against river rocks]. There's a note of wistfulness in this set of entries, particularly with SANDCASTLES ([fortresses swept away by wind and water]) crossing PAST (concisely and poetically clued as [lost present]). The concision of the clues throughout the grid, in fact, is key to the puzzle's feel. [web envelope] for EMAIL is evocative but quick and simple enough so as not to distract from the vibes, and [i love ___] for HER is simple and mysterious enough to reinforce the vibes.

The last thing I want to mention about the gestalt of the puzzle is an effect that I often dislike, in which the use of background images/colors in the applet obscures the difference between "white" and "black" squares, so that it's not obvious at a glance where the entries begin and end. I tend to find this obnoxious when it's done thoughtlessly, but I like it in this puzzle, where it evokes the idea of being swept up in life's currents. Yes, life is unpredictable, but it's comforting to be in the hands of a true artist.

7/30 ("peak performance") (brooke husic)

In June, Brooke is doing a 30/30 project where she posts a midi every day on her blog, constructed no more than 24 hours in advance. This puzzle from the project pairs nicely with Zinna's puzzle, as another example of masterful control over tone and content. Clues celebrating sexual pleasure, particular female pleasure, are a staple of Brooke's blog puzzles, but this puzzle has the most concentrated dose of them yet. If you start in the top left, the first one you're likely to run into is [Like some highly-anticipated releases]. What I like about this clue is that it's the exact opposite of innuendo - because it suggests something like album releases or movie releases, you're unlikely to suspect the answer is ORGASMIC until you have a few crossings. That's the exact opposite of the dynamic that the rest of the puzzle serves up, with clues that are clearly suggestive (sometimes as red herrings, sometimes not). So directly below ORGASMIC we have [Urge when it feels amazing] for DON'T STOP, and those two entries cross [Come up against something hard] for the (tame, as it turns out) HIT A WALL.

Turning the corner, we have COME LAST at 10-Down ([Finish second, in many cases]) and POLITER ([More likely to 10-Down]). I particularly like that 10-Down is like Schrodinger's innuendo, in that COME LAST works as an answer for the clue in both sexual and non-sexual senses, and only the clue for POLITER resolves it to a specific sense. Turning the corner again, we have STAYS LATE and SKILL SET ([What you're working with]), neither of which are necessarily sexy, but both of which pick up that connotation from the overall vibe of the puzzle. Then there's GOGO BOOTS clued with a lyric from Chappell Roan's "Red Wine Supernova" - hardly explicit compared to, say, the "wand and a rabbit" double entendre from that song, but still certainly part of the gestalt. All in all, there are 10 intersecting long (7+) answers in this 10x10 grid, and an incredible 8 of them (by my count) work together to conjure up a very specific set of images.

I say by my count because you could certainly take [Thick, stuffed cakes] as an innuendo too, but it doesn't contribute so neatly to the narrative as the other does, so dwelling on it would probably be gilding the lily. (I have no idea whether it's intended as innuendo.) I'm reminded, incidentally, of a footnote in Stanley Cavell's Pursuits of Happiness that justifies why Cavell, in his reading of food symbolism in It Happened One Night, chooses not to highlight the obvious phallic significance of the carrot eaten by Claudette Colbert's character. Cavell writes: "An interpretation offered at the wrong place, in the wrong spirit, is as useless, or harmful, as a wrong interpretation. ... Surely we do not need to be told that their relationship has sexual overtones or undercurrents." Despite the obvious double meanings of the words "thick" and "stuffed," I don't think it strengthens the reading of the puzzle to take the gorditas as anything but gorditas.

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