[But first, the January 12 update news: the first Beelzebub crossword I set from 1995, together with a little history of how I got started on them.]
2013 is the centenary of the crossword and plans are afoot to commemorate this in many and various ways. This website is a good place to start. One of the suggestions is for a series of crossword awards, a proposal that has set off a bit of a flurry of debate, and a concerned flurry at that. (See, e.g., here. Not sure about Croscar – wasn’t there a Ximenes puzzle entitled Elbuod Croscati, where the first first and last letters of the across entries could be jumbled separately to give thematic material?) My take on the issue follows.
Some of the concern lies with the very issue of comparison. How can one select a ‘Crossword of the Year’ between the various types: the daily cryptic up to the barred thematic all have their devotees, and there are probably relatively few people who solve across a wide range. (The range, incidentally, needs to encompass not only the ‘daily cryptic to barred thematic’ element, but also the ‘daily cryptics in papers A, B and C’ and the ‘barred thematics in papers X, Y and Z’.) I’m not convinced that that is a serious problem. One could look at, say, the Booker prize short and long lists and wonder how you might compare Mantel and Self (both historical novels, but such different techniques) while stirring in Frayn’s more-or-less standard comedy and Beauman’s…actually you probably have to read The Teleportation Incident to get an idea of it. Pretty well any sort of broad contest like this is going to run into such issues, and they aren’t showstoppers.
I’m more intrigued by the process, since the ‘electorate’ is fractured. Even if it wasn’t fractured, I’d be concerned. Let me explain. Some years ago, the setter Ascot generously offered to fund a trophy for the Listener Crossword. So generous was he that two awards were set up: the Solver Silver Salver (for best solver) and the Ascot Gold Cup (actually a silver rose-bowl) for best puzzle. How to determine them? Well, best solver was easy enough – who had been all-correct in the year? And best puzzle followed: what puzzle did the best solver like best? This rapidly grew more complex, particularly to accommodate the situation when there were multiple all-correct solvers. The current solution for ‘best puzzle’ is generally to invite all all-correct solvers to vote, and it seems mostly to take the form of 3 points for your favourite, 2 points for your second favourite, and 1 point for third favourite. Add up the points, and out pops the winner.
Now, I set that up – I even won the Ascot Gold Cup one year – but I have qualms about it now. One is the obsession with perfection that it has generated, accompanied by terribly fine and agonised distinctions about what can or can not be accepted as right – but I guess that goes with the territory and personnel involved. The other is a more deep-seated consideration of the concept of ‘best puzzle’.
Certainly the Gold Cup voting has highlighted a range of interesting and inventive puzzles. But they’ve usually been at the hard end of the spectrum – as you might expect from a contest judged by all-correct solvers. They have toiled through some very complex puzzles, and have a wider range of delights to choose from. Clearly their decision represents a ‘best puzzle’ of some form. But I wonder more and more whether they are also selecting a puzzle that has also frustrated a good many – perhaps a majority – of solvers. If you took a vote across the full range of Listener solvers, you might find a different winner, an optimal puzzle that had given the greatest amount of pleasure, spread across a greater number of solvers. That’s a ‘best puzzle’ too, and in some ways a more difficult mark to hit. (Somewhere I’ve muttered that it is much harder to produce an enjoyable easy puzzle than it is to produce a hard puzzle, which is a similar point. It might even be on this blog somewhere, and it certainly is now!)
Which is all just another way of wondering quite what a ranking exercise can achieve in this field. I might add that rather a lot of years ago I also ran a poll in CROSSWORD asking people to vote for their favourite setter (living or dead). It was apparently conducted by a range of Groucho Marx characters (such were the pseudonyms Brian Head assigned), so I don’t think anyone else has known it was me until now. Can I remember anything about it? Not really – Araucaria, Azed, Ximenes, Alec Robins all did well, I recall, but I couldn’t tell you the order. Have I kept a copy? Ah, well, um…
Back to the 2013 proposals. Do we need to take a leaf out of the Booker book and appoint a panel? (Watch everyone take several steps back…) This is not to say that awards are a bad thing: a wise crossword setter once opined that : “Awards have three things to offer: cash, confidence and bric-a-brac” (although he was not being entirely positive about awards at the time, nor was he talking about crosswords). Actually, as far as I can see, the cash and the bric-a-brac aren’t on the table here. But I don’t want to throw the confidence element out, because really that’s what the whole exercise is really about.