The role of popular culture in crosswords is something of an obsession with me. There has been a lot of debate (particularly in America) about the need for crosswords to be relevant to all groups in the population, and that certain themes are excluding certain people from puzzles. There are the usual murmurs about puzzles being supplied by and for older white men, with the implication that they need to get more up-to-date, because the younger solvers certainly aren’t going to. Remind me again: which group is being accused of not adjusting to wider interests?
Christopher Fowler, the recently-deceased British writer (watch for an Independent Nina), once rather irritably wrote that if he found a word he didn’t know in a text he went and looked it up, rather than whining for the text to be made simpler. I’m certainly of a group that looks to find things out from puzzles, but the setters have to ensure that the answers are gettable. The complete cross-checking in American puzzles is a boon (until a crossing point requires knowledge of a retired soap star and a long-dead baseball player to fill that last cell), but there are traps for cryptic clue-writers. I recall a not-so-recent Independent puzzle where the answer was the name of a soccer player with which I was unfamiliar. The clue used ‘doctor’ as part of its fodder, and I had the M cross-checked – but naturally the adjacent letter was unchecked. So was it MO, MB or MD? Each seemed equally implausible, and I could not decide. The gentleman in question was Kylian Mbappe, and I had no way of deciding. For a certain portion of the solvers, however, it was a write-in. (And I have come across him regularly since. No, I am not going to attempt giving him his diacritic; it will only come up as question-mark.)
That’s a sort of warning about the chances of success in trying to please a truly wide number of solvers. My own view of popular culture is that it is incredibly fragmented, but the components shout a lot so they appear more popular than they are. As a result, I tend to think in terms of Venn diagrams – your puzzle on Taylor Swift lyrics will pass over the heads of diehard rap fans, and vice versa, so some solvers will be unhappy either way. But there’ll be a coterie ensconced in the overlap of the circles that will be perfectly content.
This matters less in the more advanced puzzles. Daily puzzles should be solvable without much recourse to references (that requires the wordplay in clues to be precise), but barred puzzles seem to come with the expectation that research may be necessary. This has been inspired by an odd comment – or perhaps I should say a comment I found odd – on a recent Inquisitor by Ifor where one commenter wrote:
A good challenge but definitely less enjoyable than the pop culture ones.
One of Ifor’s predecessors had been one of my puzzles, which had garnered this comment:
I do wonder, though, if the beleaguered solver expecting something more high-brow, such as is typically associated with Phi, or being inexplicably unfamiliar with today’s theme, may have struggled rather more.
My puzzle was based on Scooby-Doo, and the full names of the occupants of the Mystery Machine. Ifor used the bells of The Nine Tailors. When I solved his puzzle I saw TYTHO emerging, cried ‘Batty Thomas!’ and wrote in the others. But for me, Dorothy L Sayers is pop culture, something gleaned from Ian Carmichael as Wimsey on the telly, and only secondarily from the books. Scooby goes further back and is in my kids’ stuff mental file, and hence not popular any more (even if the franchise continues). So the comment on Ifor’s puzzle seems back-to-front to me. But it does emphasise the rather personal nature of what is defined as popular culture, and also why someone is always going to grumble ‘that’s outside my GK’. (Here’s another example from 2007.)
So, here’s a round of puzzles for you to grumble about. For the first time ever, a set of bullet points:
- 18 April: Pangakupu in The Guardian
- 20 April: Kcit in The Telegraph Toughie
- 21 April: Phi in The Independent (perhaps this also needs a non-highbrow alert)
- 22 April: Inquisitor 1800, so PINK are back in harness
- 23 April: Kcit in the Enigmatic Variations slot in The Sunday Telegraph
- 28 April: Phi in The Independent
Quite a run next week, possibly my busiest ever. Meanwhile (nearly forgot!) the puzzle new to the site this time round is an Independent daily from 2008.