Are the ‘Croscars’ a good idea?   7 comments

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.


Posted January 7, 2013 by Anax in Newsification

7 responses to “Are the ‘Croscars’ a good idea?

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  1. Yeah interesting stuff Dean. I’ve been thinking along similar lines. Not that I think the excuse to meet up with many of my heroes is a bad idea. And not that I think the opportunity to reward the setters for their art is de facto bad. My thoughts are more to the sense of inevitability to which this sort of thing conjures up in my mind. It seems to me that the sort of awards which have been thought up so far are all well and good – but then I could tell you now the people who will be shortlisted and who will most likely win. Is this any different to the actual Oscars? The real skill will be in the introduction of categories that aren’t obvious, to reward the setters who hoi polloi will most likely overlook.

    That said, there is a reason why some of the setters will be favourites in the competition and, I suppose this is your point, the issue is whether or not all setters are seeking to achieve the same thing – personally, for my sins, my puzzles are aimed at the sort of solvers who will go on solving blogs/forums and discuss puzzles and yet, as you point out, some setters produce puzzles for people who cast their glance upon the back pages on the (ridiculously titled) Clapham Omnibus, wanting a safe solve. In this sense, some of the setters at the more “classical” end of the spectrum will be overlooked.

    So what categories should we be looking for to avoid this? I wouldn’t like to say – it’s not my place here – but I think the solvers and setters should be contacted to make sure it’s not just the same old restatement of the same old names.

  2. I have to echo both your thoughts above. I read with growing horror both the post on 225 and also Big Dave’s. I have the impression that the bloggerati are already pretty much drawn up upon territorial lines and there are by definition absolute favourites in all camps and very little support for setters who are deemed minority (or difficult hence unpopular) on said sites even when they are most enjoyable – I suspect that Jon’s rightly outdated Clapham Omnibus needs about 5 different routes!.
    To use another musical analogy one might end up with Jethro Tull winning ‘Best Metal Album’ at the expense of Metallica’s ‘Black Album’ all over again!.

    All that said – I have yet to contribute on Mr Halpern’s excellent blog for the Centenary and can only rack my brains as to what the solution might be.

  3. Personally, I think that it’s a terrible idea.

    Judging clues in isolation from their contexts (ie the puzzles of which they form part) is not at all fair, and automatically excludes a great many. Some clues which work beautifully in their natural habitats can seem poor, or even unfair, when viewed in isolation.

    Judging one setter against another is rather like comparing apples and oranges. A Monday Rufus in the Telegraph or Guardian is not the same kind of work as an Elgar Telegraph Toughie or a Mash Listener. All do what they do with admirable skill, but they do entirely different things. Is a particularly pomaceous apple better than an exceptionally aurantiaceous orange? The same applies to puzzles.

    Since it appears that the proposal is for a blog-centric vote, I agree with the sentiments above about the predictability of the outcomes, too.

    I’m all for the idea of promoting cryptic crosswords. In an age of dwindling circulation figures for newspapers, our pastime needs all the help it can get. I don’t think that this scheme will do it any favours, though.

    • Precisely. My example above was of an instance where a spectacular clue can actually be poor if it contributes to an unnecessarily tough solve. You highlight the converse. An apparently plain/bland/too simple clue may actually be a deliberate ploy by the setter to open up an area of the grid, and that makes it excellent in terms of the role it plays.

      • I think we should wait and see what happens. The voting will be fairer (or at least less polarised) on Times for the Times, where we don’t know the identity of the setters and thematic puzzles are as rare as hens’ teeth, so good clues taken in isolation don’t need a context as such. My only worry is that interest will fade after the first couple of months – especially given the lack of enthusiasm that’s been shown so far…well, that and the fact that most months only puzzles from the last few days will be fresh enough in the memory to attract votes.

        Also, the active crossword blogging community even now probably only consists of a couple of hundred people – a few dozen bloggers plus the regular commenters. Most of us have met at one or more of the S&B gatherings – not exactly a clique but we’re quite a small cross-section. On top of that core are maybe another couple of thousand lurkers who’ve found the blogs by accident Googling for answers. What we should be striving for is a lot more exposure to the crossword-solving majority, most of whom are probably unaware of the exisitence of a community of setters and solvers. This could be one way to achieve that, as long as it gets enough publicity in the printed papers, plus constant reminders. I don’t know whether the blogs will have enough sustained interest on their own.

        Voting buttons on the various online versions of puzzles might be a possibility, plus details of how to vote next to each printed puzzle in every paper (although given the space constraints they’re already under that might not be possible). What I’m saying is that the papers will have to buy in to the idea – all of them, and agree on a format, online and offline. Is such cooperation possible? It’s an important anniversary to us, but will the newspaper editors see it that way?

  4. You may have gathered from the post on my site that, while I support John Halpern’s aim of celebrating the centenary, I was underwhelmed by the “awards”. Especially as there is no “Blog of the Year” mentioned!

    I tried a Clue-of-the-week competition a few years ago and it was poorly supported (23 votes in total, a lot of them from the blogging team). The first month might create some interest, but I doubt it will last until December.

  5. Pingback: Crossword Awards |

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