Yes, the battle rages on, as some of you may have noticed. I’ve resisted involvement for a couple of reasons. Adding comments could have been seen as attacking other setters, which I would never do, but I’m also aware that – in terms of the setting population – my opinion is one of several hundred and I have no claim to be any more right than anyone else. However, in the comparative safety of my own online space I can at least offer a couple of thoughts.
The perception is that Xims and Libs stand in opposite trenches which, to me, is a shame. It’s not for me to attempt to describe the relationship between the two factions, but I can say what my ideal is. In my ideal little world, Libertarian clueing is an extension of Ximenean. Yeah, I know, how the hell is that going to work?
Well let’s think about it. All clue-writing has a very large number of common elements, common approaches. All that Libertarians do is bend the rules here and there. Leave some out and invent new ones from time to time, yes, but mostly it’s a little bending.
Remember Les Dawson’s hilarious piano playing? Anybody can play the piano badly, but it tends to sound awful, not funny. Dawson’s comedic effectiveness was only possible because he was in fact a highly accomplished pianist. The wrong notes he played were actually the right wrong notes to play, and he chose the right moments to play them. It can be argued – and I’m convinced it’s true – that what he did was harder than playing tunes properly.
My belief is that there is nothing at all wrong with Libertarian clueing as a concept, but to get it right you have to be well versed in Ximenean accuracy and fairness. You need to know which rules to bend and how far you can bend them before clues step into unsolvable territory. My gut feeling is that some Libertarian setters have trained themselves by studying only other Libertarian work, so they don’t have a full appreciation of the constraints which should be in place to ensure wacky ideas don’t fall over the edge.
Mention was also made (and this is the main reason I stayed schtum) of setters giving classes in clue-writing. The internet has helped solvers and setters get to know each other in ways that were never previously possible – or certainly not done, anyway – and any opportunity for that is good. Gatherings such as Sloggers and Betters are also great but, of course, entirely informal; in fact for many setters they are a nice chance to meet solvers and to not have to talk about crosswords!
What about instructional classes though? I’m not so sure. Let’s pluck a wild figure from the air and say there are 300 active setters. Each has an individual style and each is blessed with a solvership for whom that style is ideally matched, whether that be in terms of difficulty, humour, conciseness, smooth surfaces, presence/lack of anagrams… lots and lots of little things. Each setter should aim to be ‘the best’ for one three hundredth of solvers, and to accept that for the remaining 299 out of 300 their puzzles are no good at all. The idea that any setter can give students instruction on the ‘right way’ of doing things doesn’t quite have a logical fit for me.
A couple of years ago, while we walked to a crossword event somewhere in London, one of our leading UK setters suggested I should seriously consider writing a book about cryptic clue-writing. I took it as an enormous accolade from a setter who was – and remains – at the top of his (indeed everyone’s!) game, but I knew it could go no further than that. The simple reason was “What gives me the right?” There is nothing about what I do which means others have to adhere to it, and it’s why I would never* consider giving classes or courses. I’ll take my one three hundredth and leave it at that.
*Depends on the fee, of course. Deep down I’m as mercenary as anyone.