2013 promises to be an exciting cruciverbal year as we celebrate 100 years of crosswords, and several plans are afoot to attract new solvers (and, hopefully, setters) into our friendly fold. However, there’s just one plan that worries me slightly.
You may have seen mention on a few blogs of awards ranging from clue of the month to setter of the year. In principle this is a great publicity idea, but I have some reservations about what will happen in practice. Now don’t get me wrong. Setter John Halpern is a good friend and colleague and his enthusiasm for dragging cryptic crosswords out of arcaneness/elitism/nerdiness (all wrongly applied) into the mainstream is really, really brilliant. Like everyone involved in crosswords, I’m keen to see his efforts succeed.
But awards for clues, crosswords and setters have the potential to stray into divisive ground. So I have to say, right now, that my reservations may prove to be completely unfounded, simply because I don’t have full details about how these awards will be voted for, who will oversee them, who will vote or indeed how setters themselves will be involved. With that in mind, here are my concerns, and I’ll start with a small digression.
This band I’m in does cover versions only, and we’re constantly expanding our range of material. It was easy to select the first 20 or so songs we’d cover because it was easy to think of 20 or so real funk, disco and soul classics and, in fairness, the guitarist and I had selected most of these before we put the band together. With a full band, though, choosing more songs involved a voting process, and we went about it by finding a database of the top 100 song requests received by club/party DJs.
I say ‘we’. I wasn’t interested in this database at all. For me it had a basic flaw, and to explain it I’ll digress yet again(!)…
There’s an old mind-reading trick in which the performer selects an audience volunteer and proceeds to give them a sequence of simple arithmetical and general knowledge questions to be answered as quickly as possible. With a warning that the volunteer has only 2 or 3 seconds remaining comes the final question – give me the name of a colour. Almost without fail, the volunteer responds with “orange” and, hey presto, the ‘mind-reader’ unfolds a piece of paper with ORANGE written on it.
The brain’s synaptic processes are such that, under certain circumstances, we have almost automatic memory responses, and we forget other, equally viable answers. This is the problem with the DJ requests. People have already listened to quite a few songs and, unknown to them, these have triggered certain memories and have restricted the number of other songs whose titles/performers they can remember. And so they go for the most obvious.
For the Croscars it’s possible that something similar could happen, although for slightly different reasons. It’s fantastic that we live in an Internet age in which the communication between solvers and setters is as it never could have been only ten years ago. The oldest of the crossword blogs has only been around for about eight years, so that gives you some idea of how far we’ve come. Some setters have embraced this, with their own web presence and/or frequent contribution to blogs. Some are regular attendees at Sloggers & Betters gatherings. Some – while not necessarily frequently visible online – keep up regular email contact with their solving fans. Some do all of this. These are the ‘public’ setters.
Then you have the private ones. Some may be too busy to spend their time online. For many, they just don’t want to be that public. Their crosswording activities, whether full-time or occasional, are what they are devoted to, and they just want to produce the best work they can without fuss. Whatever job you do, the majority of satisfaction comes from your superiors telling you you’re doing a great job and – let’s be honest – a pay packet at the end of the month. And for many setters ‘superior’ simply means the editor being happy with your work and sending it off for publication. We can’t demand that private setters throw off their cloaks and enter the world of online banter and publicity – to do that would be wrong to the point of evil.
However, when it comes to voting for clue of the month, crossword of the month, setter of the year etc etc, those memory synapses will kick in, and voters will unwittingly restrict their thoughts to those setters whose names they see most often online, or to those with whom they have personal contact either via email of Sloggers & Betters meetings. Sadly, the private setters, who may be regularly producing top class puzzles, could well be (or, more damagingly, feel) sidelined, simply because awards voters don’t automatically think of them.
And in any case… clue of the month? This, too, is dangerous territory. For me, ‘best clue’ must always be restricted to the puzzle in which it appears, because that is the only place in which its full relevance and worth can be seen. A cryptic crossword is a set of around 30 clues which the setter hopes will be gradually solved to complete the puzzle. In this regard, it’s essentially a set of 30 interacting pieces of a jigsaw, and the relevance of each clue is not restricted to how clever, tough, or innovative it may be. One must take into account how fair it is in the context of the whole puzzle. A clue may be brilliant on its own, but if its answer interlocks with two or three other tough clues and thus prevents all but the most experienced solver from breaking into a region of the grid, then it’s not actually that good a clue.
I’m really hoping that all the safeguards are in place to ensure that the voting and awards are thoroughly inclusive and – perhaps importantly – given without too much fanfare. There are lots of things we can celebrate and publicise. Cryptic crosswords in their own right, yes. Individual clues, crosswords and setters? OK, but we have to be very careful about how it’s done.