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For crossword constructors, an inclusivity debate: What’s ‘common knowledge’ and who decides?

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
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Let’s test how well you’d fare on a crossword puzzle.

Six letters: “Distinctive features of Marcus Garvey’s helmet.” Seven letters: “Online magazine co-founded by Henry Louis Gates Jr.” Nine letters: “Civil rights icon who led a historic march from Selma to Montgomery on 3/7/1965.” Eleven letters: “Underground rap?” Another 11 letters: “2017 hit by Cardi B.”

Think on those for a minute.

The crossword community buzzed approvingly when the New York Times kicked off Black History Month in February with a week of puzzles built by Black constructors.

Like many cultural institutions and long-standing media features, the history of the beloved crossword puzzle (and the people who make and edit them) reveals a story of inherent exclusion. The old contours of canon — literature, history, trends, trivia — are again under scrutiny: When is a trove of facts "common knowledge" and who, exactly, gets to presume so? The answer used to be White (and often male) editors. It was up to the solvers to deduce reasonable answers to make those empty squares whole.

Time’s up on those clues, all taken from the Times puzzles that ran the week of Feb. 1:

Luscious “PLUMES” adorned the helmet of Garvey, the political activist. Gates co-founded “THEROOT.” Of course, “JOHNLEWIS” was the civil rights leader who led the historic Selma march — Lewis was the entire theme of one puzzle. If you were scouring for rap subgenres, don’t bother: “SECRETKNOCK” was the clever wordplay answer for “Underground rap?” And the song bumping out of every speaker in the summer of ’17? That was Cardi B’s “BODAKYELLOW.

Sure, there’s a chance these clues might have appeared in other, recent puzzles. But they rarely do — all but “PLUMES” made their first appearance as an answer. The feedback from some devoted solvers and editors to Black constructors is perhaps predictable. Words such as “obscure” and “alienating” are thrown about, on behalf of the supposed “average solver.”

Kameron Austin Collins, a Rolling Stone film critic who constructed the Times’s puzzle for Feb. 6, a Saturday (usually the most challenging of the weekday puzzles), is only half-joking when he observes that it’s difficult to find more than six Black constructors who are regularly working in the crossword scene.

“People already knew who the Friday and Saturday constructors were going to be,” says Collins, who also contributes to the New Yorker’s puzzles. “They knew that when Erik [Agard] ran on Friday, I was going to run on Saturday because there are so few Black people publishing [crosswords] at the Times.”

American crossword solvers are typically picking up their newspaper or phone and solving one of a handful of puzzles. The community that makes them, solves them, follows them and argues their merits is a world unto itself, perhaps ripe for a “Queen’s Gambit”-style dramatization.

Most U.S. newspapers run a syndicated crossword, usually constructed by freelance contributors. The Washington Post publishes the Los Angeles Times daily puzzle, which is syndicated by the Tribune Content Agency; those puzzles come from a submission process open to any and all constructors. (The Post’s Sunday Magazine puzzle is constructed by Evan Birnholz.)

But most often, it’s what the New York Times does (or does not) do with its inky block of 15-by-15 squares (21-by-21 on a Sunday) that dominates any discussion among crossword makers and fans. A crossword reflects life as it is lived and understood in certain contexts — what you’re eating, reading, hearing, watching and seeing in the world.

“The New York Times is a cottage industry,” Collins says of the brand’s yearly books of puzzles and its app subscriptions. “It is so important for us to show our faces in this space if we want to work toward the effort of getting other underrepresented people constructing. Because if there’s one puzzle they’re going to land on first, it’s probably the New York Times. We have got to be there.”

The challenge for crosswords is both institutional and about connecting to readers: Whose world is being represented — and whose isn’t?

Collins recalls a New York Times puzzle from November 2015 that struck him:

“It had Don Lemon, the TV journalist; Olivia Pope, the Kerry Washington character from ‘Scandal’; fan fiction; Philadelphia’s Gayborhood; slang phrases like ‘spits game,’ ” Collins says. “The way that people responded was validating in a way that it shouldn’t have been.”

The puzzle made it clear to Collins that there is “a real hunger” for even just a taste of inclusion in crosswords, even with something “as simple as more names of Black people.”

The term you'll most hear around major publication crosswords is "fairness." In the dance between editors and constructors, there's a growing debate over what are "common" or "well known" terms to readers and solvers.

There are ways, most constructors agree, to curate good puzzles without seeming to cater to niche whims.

Take USA Today’s crossword: It is intentionally constructed as a more approachable puzzle for newcomers, with minimal tricky wordplay clues and what are broadly seen as mainstream answers. Even there, some solvers have complained about not knowing things such as the “nickname for the singer of ‘Get Me Bodied’ ” (answer: Beyoncé) and the symbol used by fans of the singer (answer: the bee emoji).

“Okay, if it’s the Year of our Lord 2020 and you don’t know Beyoncé, that is your problem,” says Brooke Husic, a constructor whose puzzles have been published in USA Today and the New York Times.

Husic, a 29-year-old postdoctoral researcher in biophysics, leaped into crossword construction in 2019 with little puzzle experience beyond academic curiosity and an active Twitter account. She would be solving puzzles and accrue her own complaints about the way clues were worded and how they would even come about.

“I think all the time about how to clue ‘bra,’ ” Husic says. “To me, it’s so obvious when someone who doesn’t wear a bra and has never worn a bra includes bra.” She specifically cites past clues such as “It makes the torso more so” or any variation that includes “uplifting” and counters with a clue from one of her recent puzzles: “Item often not worn while working from home.”

“Insofar as I’m including entries in my puzzles that are not in the standard White male canon, it’s not so White men can, like, learn about what it’s like to wear a bra if they don’t already,” she says. “It’s so people who wear bras are, like, ‘This person understands my experience.’ ”

Breaking into the world of puzzle construction is, like most things, a combination of determination, luck and skill. Freelance constructors submit to outlets large and small; some, like USA Today, keep their own trusted stable of contributors.

“As much as we admired a lot of the puzzles that came out of mainstream outlets, in various ways, some of them also felt stale,” Liz Maynes-Aminzade, the New Yorker’s puzzles and games editor, says about her group of 10 regular contributors, more than half of whom are women. The magazine recently started printing a crossword puzzle in each issue.

“We were picking the people we thought were the best, but part of that is wanting to bring in new voices and a wide range of voices and perspective,” Maynes-Aminzade says.

There’s a push-and-pull about what to take away from a crossword: Should it merely reinforce your prior knowledge or compel you to dig into new word meanings or names?

And what if the theme of the puzzle involves a subject that one editor sees as a tribute and another sees as potentially offensive?

Example: An L.A. Times puzzle from December credited to constructor Matt McKinley (and which ran in The Post), referenced several films by Woody Allen, an increasingly persona-non-grata figure for solvers, who complained after it ran.

Patti Varol, a freelance constructor who works as the assistant editor on the L.A. Times’s puzzles, says she tried to warn her longtime friend, colleague and boss, Rich Norris, about her own objections to the puzzle and the potential fallout from it.

Afterward, she says, he admitted the puzzle probably shouldn’t have run — but only “because of the [reader] objections, not because there was anything wrong with the theme.” (The kicker, Varol adds: “Rich made the puzzle himself. That was a pen name.”)

Reached by email, Norris declined to confirm his authorship but did say, “If I had this to do over again, I would probably not use the puzzle, especially in view of how polarizing Mr. Allen and his films have evidently become.”

Was it a situation of a crossword gatekeeper being impervious to a changing world? Or just a difference of opinion?

Agard, a prolific speed-solver and constructor who edits USA Today’s crossword and whose puzzles have appeared in the New Yorker and New York Times, rejects the premise that it has to be so complicated.

Shy Marylander is nation’s top teen crossword puzzle solver

“I think something we need to outgrow is centering White solvers in every decision and conversation about what should go in a puzzle,” Agard says in an email interview. “As a constructor, if I submit a puzzle with FRANKIEBEVERLY as an answer, I already know some editors and solvers will try to act like that’s some sadistically obscure trivia (meanwhile they all know the fourth-place horse from the 1850 Kentucky Derby or whatever).

“But then people respond to those people with ‘Well, puzzles should be a vehicle for learning, so therefore it’s a great answer.’ I disagree with both camps. Crosswords should be about asking people things they already know, and that’s exactly what I was doing if I put that answer in there. If you don’t know Maze, maybe I just wasn’t writing the puzzle for you — and that’s okay! Every puzzle doesn’t have to be for everybody, and everybody doesn’t have to love every puzzle.”

(For anyone still stumped? Frankie Beverly is the legendary soul singer and frontman of Maze.)