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VOL. 39 | NO. 14 | Friday, April 3, 2015

Taking exception to NY Times crossword critique

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“Ipsy dipsy!” shouts Ann Marie, Marlo Thomas’s character in “That Girl.” Trying to impress a judge in court, she mispronounces ipse dixit. Meaning “he, himself, said it,” this Latin phrase connotes a dogmatic, unsupported assertion.

A widely read crossword blogger claims that puzzle editor Will Shortz is “reliant on a small group of reliably good constructors, without whom the average quality of [New York Times crosswords] would fall precipitously.”

Dated Feb. 15, the post continues: “We’ve seen nearly all said constructors the past three days ([Patrick] Berry, [David] Steinberg, now [Jeff] Chen).” How flattering! But wait... It’s hardly complimentary of Shortz.

Disclosure: I asked for the blogger’s input on this essay; he politely declined. He pans puzzles of mine at times, though not all the time.

I pay no mind to his zingers. But some folk are genuinely hurt by them.

To them, I say, “In Shortz’s view, your puzzle is fine for solvers! That’s what matters.”

I respect the blogger’s right to foment controversy with exaggerated negativity, which many believe is his M.O. Again, he declined comment.

In his other life, he’s an English department lecturer at a university. I commend him on that and on the “legs” of his blog, begun in 2006.

We who create and publish literature of any ilk discover there are critics everywhere. Some teach us lessons that help us grow; others, not so much; and some are ipsy dipsy.

I believe history will regard Shortz as an editor with an eye for talent, established and novice, and a fun-loving guy who builds relationships with constructors and solvers.

The claim that some “small group,” which three guys constitute nearly all of, somehow bolsters quality is, I believe, off the mark. Average puzzle quality isn’t objectively measurable.

You can’t prove it’s raised by a select cadre of authors. Dude’s entitled to opine that puzzles from some constructors are substandard. But couching his view in math jargon doesn’t raise its quality, at all, let alone precipitously. It is, at heart, ipse dixit.

How big is this clique he mentions? A site devoted exclusively to Times puzzles, xwordinfo.com, credits Steinberg with 27 in the two-year stretch 2013-2014. Chen, Ian Livengood and Berry had 23, 22 and 21, respectively.

Are they the group? Three would be nearly all of four. In the same span, Peter Collins and Joel Fagliano each had 18; Elizabeth Gorski, 17. Might the group be a septet?

Seventeen puzzlers had 8-13 in print during the noted period: Martin Ashwood-Smith, Patrick Blindauer, Zhouqin Burnikel, Gary Cee, Tim Croce, Josh Knapp, Joe Krozel, Julian Lim, Andrea Carla Michaels, James Mulhern, Doug Peterson, Timothy Polin, Brendan Emmett Quigley, Dan Schoenholz, Ed Sessa, Barry Silk, and Brad Wilber. Talk about talent.

Joining me with 7 in that two-year stretch are Joe D. Pietro, Sam Donaldson, Todd Gross, David Kahn, and Lynn Lempel. So, guys, were we saved by the curve?

In conclusion, I want to extend grats and props to the 63 authors who had debuts in 2013-2014. Your puzzles were clever, creative and edgy. They didn’t lower anything.

“Pay no attention to that [blogger] behind the curtain!” Because I say so. Ipsy dipsy.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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