C.C. Burnikel suggested another discussion topic: “The themeless puzzles are dominated by male constructors. I wonder why other woman constructors are not making them.”
Our most prolific female themeless/freestyle puzzle-makers include Karen Tracey (a regular in the Washington Post’s Post Puzzler, and previously seen often in the New York Sun and New York Times), Paula Gamache (NY Times), and Sherry Blackard (retired from puzzle-making, and known for her fiendishly difficult themelesses in the NY Times). But a large majority of newspaper themelesses are indeed by men.
Tracy Bennett, NY Times/Chronicle of Higher Education constructor, crossword creator at Bust, a feminist magazine: I’ve been making themelesses pretty steadily—spent last year trying to win the Post Puzzler guest slot with no luck. One of those non-winning entries has been accepted by Will, but I don’t know when it will appear. I see some constructors waiting a year or more, so I’m not holding my breath. In that context of the long wait to publication, it’s kind of frustrating to see the same well-known bylines showing up weeks apart, or to read that Will liked a certain puzzle so much that he moved it up (though that’s his prerogative of course).
Amy Reynaldo: Making a themeless is more of a mathematical/patterning exercise than a wordplay one, and girls and women are often dissuaded from pursuing higher math. Perhaps honing the mathematical side of one’s brain is helpful for constructing themelesses? Look at some of the niftiest themeless constructors we have: Byron Walden is a math professor. Mike Nothnagel teaches math at the Culinary Institute of America. And I think David Quarfoot teaches high school math.
C.C. Burnikel, prolific LA Times/NY Times constructor, founder of the Crossword Corner blog: Good point on the math issue. I never thought of that.
Brad Wilber and Barry Silk, on the other hand, made a lot of themed puzzles before focusing on themeless only.
I feel a bit handicapped due to my background [ed.: C.C. grew up in China and English isn't her first language]. I don’t have a good grasp on snazzy themeless seeding entries. For example, I never heard of 1-Across in [a recent] Saturday’s LAT, so I’d never dreamed of putting it in a grid, not to mention a key 1-Across spot.
I’ve also learned that it’s extremely important to have themeless building skill in order to make smooth Sunday grids. Possibly one reason we see very few woman Sunday constructors also. In fact, zero for NYT this year.
Elizabeth Gorski, second-most prolific NY Times constructor, creator of the Crossword Nation weekly puzzle, regular constructor in the Wall Street Journal and other publications: I have long admired the many women who make excellent themeless puzzles. Sherry Blackard’s crosswords are most impressive. Sherry made a collection of themelesses which, back in the days of the New York Times Forum, received high praise from male and female solvers. When a puzzle appeals to men and women, the constructor has hit a home run!
Karen Tracey is co-author of a themeless book. We see a variety of top women authors in the themeless space (per xwordinfo database.) When my own themeless puzzles were published, I received quite a few emails from male solvers who enjoyed them and wanted to see more. In fact, over the years I’ve received a lot of support from male solvers. Thank you, gentlemen, for your support!
Having made both themed and themeless puzzles, I’ve found this is true: If you can make a themed puzzle, you can make a themeless. Themed crosswords—especially Sundays—are much harder to make. A Sunday puzzle theme must be built around a themeless puzzle. A good fill is a themeless puzzle.
Having sold a few thousand puzzles over the years, two trends come to mind: (a) a themeless puzzle is easier to make (relative to a themed puzzle), but harder to sell; (b) a themed puzzle is harder to make, but easier to sell. (I’m not counting the record-breaking low-word-count puzzles; they are rare and not part of this discussion.)
To construct or not to construct? We’ve heard from editors about the oversupply of themelesses and the dearth of Monday/Tuesday puzzles in the newspaper inventories. If I choose to make a Tuesday-level puzzle, it’s not because I can’t make a themeless. (Of course I can.) It may be because a good Tuesday puzzle is easier to sell and I’ve developed a unique theme idea. It’s a percentage play.
But if I am commissioned to make a themeless crossword for a newspaper, magazine, or tournament playoff round—I will provide a product of superior quality. That’s a guarantee.
Obviously, I don’t buy into the myth that women can’t make themeless puzzles, or that few women try. But there’s hope on the horizon. I’m pleased to report that the younger generation of constructors and editors don’t buy into the myth either. In recent years I’ve worked with young people (men and women under 35) on new puzzle ventures. These colleagues are businesslike, focused, smart, and devoted to the craft. I am hopeful about the future of our business and the changes these people will bring to the production and quality of crosswords. The best is yet to come!
Amy Reynaldo: Following up on Liz’s remarks, I’d like to encourage more women to try their hand at making themeless puzzles, and perhaps expand their Sunday-sized grid-filling skills at the same time. I suspect that half or more of newspapers’ crossword solvers are women, and as one of them, I’d love to see the sort of zippy fill that women come up with. Paula Gamache made an NYT puzzle with MAN-BREASTS in it, whereas so many of Peter Gordon’s terrific Fireball crosswords contain things like baseball players I’ve never heard of. Which is not to say that there aren’t women who love baseball and men who know nothing of it—but hitting a broad generalization, there are words and topics that play to predominantly female or male sensibilities, and I would appreciate more of the female side.
(Note: Please forgive the gender binary here. I used to read a blog by a puzzle-savvy trans person, and I don’t know if they ever got into making crosswords but hey, there may well have already been a trans constructor who wasn’t out to the world. I’m in favor of all sorts of diversity and representation.)