The Listmaker (CTS, Pt. 8)

The Dave Macleod at right is an angry puzzle, and @#$% you if you don’t like it.

You might not think it’s angry at first glance. The grid content is nothing out of the ordinary, though the placement of BARACK OBAMA and JOHN MCCAIN in parallel positions dates it as a 2008 effort. Only the hot-button HABEAS CORPUS, a major issue in 2008, signals that something might be up:’s database notes that HABEAS’ mentions in newspaper crosswords stopped dead after 2007. But the puzzle is titled “Pull No Political Punches,” and the clues do just that. “George couldn’t find him because he never really tried” (OSAMA). “He’s the real deal and has the right stuff” (BARACK OBAMA). “Only place where Lincoln has any real meaning to Republicans” (CENT).

Olbermann_11.5The puzzle was published on a political blog sympathetic to its views. It was a one-off, and I’ve never encountered a puzzle more strident. But it wasn’t completely unprecedented. Matt Gaffney’s “Political Crossword” ran in Slate beginning in 1999, covering such topics as embarrassments, vegetarians in office and the practicers and beneficiaries of nepotism. More bipartisan than “Pull No Political Punches,” it made its points, all the same.

The Week‘s Peter Gordons, sampled below, appear to have inherited Gaffney’s mantle. Those Gordons, though, in keeping with The Week‘s objective image, represent the names in the news with little editorializing. Is that as it should be? We are calling them fact-finders, after all. Is there no place in puzzling for opinions, outside of a novelty item or two?

nFwTMThe tradition of the “breakfast test” in mainstream newspapers would appear to say that no, there isn’t. Calling George W. Bush a warmonger, or Barack Obama a wimp, would make certain readers as likely to spit milk on their cornflakes as would the sight of wild sex, or the name of a massacre. Even putting out opinions on more trivial matters, like who really should have won Season 9 of American Idol, seems like borrowing trouble.

(Crystal Bowersox.)

There’s a practical consideration too. Crosswords are for solvers. The clue “He’s the real deal and has the right stuff” could have gone as easily to JOHN MCCAIN (he’s got the same number of letters). Macleod gambled that readers of the left-leaning blog would treat the clue’s opinion as a fact, but that’s only a risk worth taking if you know your audience well and they’re a niche. In general, be general.

Region capture 2But of course, it’s not that simple. Opinions are around us all the time; we just don’t notice them so much when they don’t actively conflict with our own. Because, obviously, that’s when they’re the right opinions.

Take this Allan E. Parrish, which includes six different NASA shuttles, clued simply as “#1″ through “#6:” CHALLENGER, ENTERPRISE, DISCOVERY, ENDEAVOUR, COLUMBIA, ATLANTIS. Nice and symmetrical, and seemingly non-controversial, but think again. The disasters that befell the Challenger and Columbia might be considered to violate the breakfast test. And the assumption underlying the puzzle– that each of the six shuttles is worth remembering– might be challenged by those who’d call them “money that would be better spent on Earth.”

jm9ccmhwv6i00iwEverything’s political when you look hard enough. Quigley put out a puzzle themed around leading figures in the Tea Party. They were just names in the news… he offered no value judgments about them. But merely naming them provokes some emotional reaction. His tongue firmly in cheek, David Levinson Wilk conclusively proved that New York Times puzzles are irredeemably liberal by tracking usage of the vowely OBAMA versus the consonanty MCCAIN, and the longtime senator BIDEN versus the unknown-until-2008 PALIN. Is there any escape from this opinion-rich atmosphere?

(No. See the beginning of the previous paragraph.)

BG_11212010The real question is, would you want to escape? This Emily Cox and Henry Rathvon rebus-listmaker crossbreed is about as neutral as one could imagine, focused on basic factorization– ONE HUNDRED X TEN, FORTY-TWO X TWELVE, ELEVEN X ELEVEN, SEVENTEEN X TWO, NINE MILLION X ONE, ANY NUMBER X ZERO. It’s tough to politicize this theme– oh, it can be done, just not easily. Even in the age of calculators, nearly the entire Boston Globe crossword audience would agree it’s important to know how to do math. But I find myself echoing Sam Donaldson’s review: “Am I missing something, or is that it?” Puzzle ideas without a little spark of opinion behind them may be duller than they’re worth.

Region capture 14Likewise, this poker-themed Richard Chisholm grid is another nearly-apolitical theme– FULL HOUSE, FOUR ACES, THREE KINGS, TWO PAIRS, ROYAL FLUSH, POKER HAND. Just don’t tell the Puritans. But the puzzle is clued without reference to poker, e.g. “What ‘S.R.O.’ indicates (FULL HOUSE).” Here, the guiding opinion is that poker hands are much more familiar than shuttle names, so a little extra obfuscation is necessary. (I refuse to make a joke here about the puzzle not “showing its hand.” Because we have a relationship founded on respect and trust.)

Region capture 13The continued fragmentation of the puzzle market has allowed for a wide variety of slants. New possibilities have surfaced: crosswords for gadget lovers, meme-watchers. One can usually rely on the Chronicle of Higher Education, for instance, to provide puzzles with a distinctly professorial air. They won’t all be fact-finders, but they’ll all be highly educated, good sir or madam. This Mark Feldman includes the names of symphonies (UNFINISHED, SURPRISE, EROICA, JUPITER, SPRING, NEW WORLD, PATHETIQUE) and other recent themes have included posthumously published works, science-fictional concepts and deaths of opera characters.

300All of the puzzles just mentioned, and all that we’ve shown in this installment, are listmakers. The listmaker is the most no-nonsense of the already no-nonsensical fact-finders. It doesn’t care about word properties as the Marian does, and it doesn’t care what day it is like the commemorative. It’s focused on literal meanings that don’t change from day to day. And good for it. But it lives in an opinionated world.

Next time out, we’ll discuss the Marian, which joins with the listmaker to complete crosswords’ most charmingly dysfunctional couple.

About T Campbell

T Campbell is a crossword constructor and comics scriptwriter. Among his cruciverbal accomplishments are the Ubercross C-Spot (the largest puzzle to follow New York Times standard rules), Crossworlds, a collection of 50 science-fiction-themed puzzles, and the forthcoming On Crosswords: Callin' Out Them Squares.
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One Response to The Listmaker (CTS, Pt. 8)

  1. john farmer says:

    Politics is a funny thing. I’d be all for crosswords with a partisan slant — if the slant on politics were the same as mine. That may be true as well for those on the other side of the political divide. That may be why we don’t see many, if any, partisan puzzles. Puzzles, generally, have stuck to the middle, steering clear of offending either side.

    The prime venue for puzzles has generally been newspapers, which (except for the op-ed pages) usually look to take an “objective” view (however that’s defined) on most things, even politics. Crosswords come out of the same tradition.

    The media landscape has changed a lot, though. A few decades ago, talk radio was hardly as partisan as it is today. More recently, cable news has gotten more partisan too. Lots of reasons for that, but media have found they can attract a loyal if smaller audience by appealing to partisans rather than to everybody.

    I don’t see that happening with newspapers, though, especially with just one or two papers per city, and many of them fighting for survival. Papers are trying to keep a broad audience, not appeal to a narrow partisan crowd. It’s true that some comics have gotten very partisan, but that’s easier to do with a couple of dozen strips running every day. If the paper runs one puzzle, it’s not going to be taking sides.

    Online is still the new frontier. Maybe there’s a market for partisan puzzles online, and someone will tap into it. But the economic model for any kind of online puzzles is still pretty shaky. That might need to be worked out before you start peeling off parts of the audience. (Maybe the solution is mobile. People expect everything on the Internet to be free but are willing to pay for stuff on their wireless.)

    Well, I’ve gone on too long and I haven’t gotten to my beef about the so-called breakfast test. Maybe some other day.

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