Last time out, we asked: Is it possible to do a decent themeless “seedless?” Since we’re devoting an entire chapter to the answer, you’ve already guessed it’s not as simple as “no.”
You know it, I know it. Why even bother pretending otherwise? You’re a solver. You make logical assumptions based on length. It’s what you do.
And therein lies the problem.
The principal disadvantage to a seed patch crossword– which increases with the number, size, and showiness of the seeds– is “lumpiness.” The more RAZZLE-DAZZLE in the big entries, the more likely there’ll be some OLIO in the rest of the fill. Our third type, the pudding crossword, a puzzle without “star” entries, would seem to be a response to this issue. By de-emphasizing seeds, it would focus on the oft-cited virtue of “smooth fill,” where the solution of one entry leads easily to another, and another, and another, like dominoes, or spoonfuls of chocolate pudding after a hard day, OMG SO GOOD, WTF HOW IS IT GONE ALREADY?
It’s certainly possible to make a puzzle without a specific seed in your mind, in the age of computer-assisted fill. It doesn’t even have to be a bad puzzle, as long as you know when to trust your instincts over the computer’s autopilot.
But it’s not about how the constructor gets there– it’s about whether entries are perceived as seed entries by the solver. Anything of unusual width tends to jump out. So puzzles only really come across as puddings if all their entries are short.
How short? Any cut-off point we assign is going to be somewhat arbitrary. But given that most puzzles are 15 letters across, my eye generally fixates on the stacks longer than seven letters, or the single entries longer than nine. I’d assign ten letters as a max for both singles and stacks in the themeless 21x21s and 23x23s, but, er, don’t ask me to produce any examples of those.
This Manny Nosowsky is one of very few New York Times puzzles to meet the “short-stacks” qualification, and you can see the results for yourself. It has a distinctly “homogenized” character. Its top left corner, with JAVA MAN and J’ACCUSE, would be my best guess for a starting point, but it doesn’t put itself forth the way it would if it were heading up a stack of 9-letter, 10-letter or 15-letter entries.
At this point, you may be wondering: “well, that’s nice, but only a very few themelesses on this blog seem to fit this category. Wouldn’t it be better to file those among the Mieses, and say that there’s more of a spectrum of ‘seediness’ in themelesses, rather than a separate category?”
We might… if we were to limit ourselves to the types of crosswords normally covered in this blog: those published by the best newspaper syndicates and some of the biggest online crossword enthusiasts. But the crossword world is bigger than that. Although, sometimes, I think some of us wish it weren’t.
Themeless puzzles don’t have to obey the no-uncrossed-squares rule, or the low-black-square-count guideline, enforced by the New York Times and the LA Times. Other themelesses can be found in venues like the airline magazine, the more generic puzzle website and the well-intentioned demos of crossword-constructor software.
Crossword critics have little to say in favor of these puzzles. In the comments to an earlier installment of this series, Amy Reynaldo shovels on disdain so thick you can taste it:
I echo John Haber in calling those lame unthemed easy puzzles (often in a 13×13 format in the daily paper, but also 15×15) “unthemed” rather than “themeless.” Those have a standard word count rather than a tighter max of 72, and they are almost entirely devoid of sparkle.
And truth be told, I’m hard pressed to say anything much about them myself. These puzzles don’t offer the chocolatey goodness, the rich, sugary rush, of the JAVA MAN/J’ACCUSE recipe. They’re more like the bland tapioca you’re fed when your family can’t afford any more exciting options. (“Chocolate” and “tapioca”: possible subcategories? Discuss.) ANTIGONE, BIODIESEL, ALEKHINE and PALO ALTO are kind of nice, I guess, but having seen the above puzzle’s structure used for more demanding theme puzzles, I can’t help but feel like Cyril Zhang is a little too focused on cluing ANTIGONE to demand more from his grid.
Still, every true crossword is somebody’s first, and for those who aren’t confident in their vocabulary or theme-finding abilities, tapioca may be the best place to begin. After all, it’s where we all began. The very first crossword ever made qualified as a pudding crossword. Sure, we can call Arthur Wynne’s inaugural work primitive now, but I think its very simplicity helped hook its audience– 100% crossword newbies– on the habit.
Next week: the anything-goes. Wear the clothes you look hot in. We’re gonna party.