Themeless Crosswords Vs. Themed Crosswords?

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When you think of crossword puzzles, what comes to mind? The grid first, or maybe the clues? When you picture your default crossword, is it a themed puzzle or themeless?

I ask because something of a kerfuffle was sparked on Twitter over the weekend regarding themeless puzzles vs. themed puzzles, and as you might expect, fellow puzzler, I have thoughts on the subject.

So how did all this start? With a blog post by crossword reviewer Rex Parker.

If you’re unaware, Rex is a constructor in his own right, but is far better known in the crossword world for his curmudgeonly reviews of the New York Times crossword. He frequently makes fair points, but they can be lost amid his personal views regarding particular clues and entries. (Often, if he doesn’t know it, it’s obscure. Which is not the same thing at all.) He’s sort of a “you love him or you don’t” figure in the crossword sphere.

I genuinely believe his commentary, however inconsistent or caustic at times, comes from a sincere desire to be engaged, entertained, and wowed by the puzzles he is so clearly invested in. But again, sometimes he can’t see the forest for the trees, and when your brand is “guy who bellyaches about crosswords,” you often play into what people expect from you.

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[Now, to be fair, Rex is no Grandpa Simpson. But I simply couldn’t resist, given how he’s become synonymous with “grumpy fan who knows better than you.” And I’m so so very tired of gatekeeping fandom in general.]

And on Sunday, he carved into a Robyn Weintraub 21x themeless crossword with some serious vitriol:

This is very good for what it is, but unfortunately (for me), what it is is a Sunday themeless, and these are just never going to be interesting to me. As I’ve said before, it’s a giant (literally, giant! 21×21!) shrug. A Sunday-sized “we give up, here’s some stuff.” It’s too easy to be that interesting, and since the grid is so big, the construction doesn’t feel particularly special.

That is, yeah, you can get a lot of longish answers into a 21×21. There’s lots of room. I just don’t care as much as I ought to care. And today’s grid shape was really vanilla. No, wait, I like vanilla. A vanilla malt is the best thing in the world. Let’s call it “boilerplate” instead. It looks like a template of some kind. It’s a very clean grid, and many of the entries here are interesting, but the overall effect of said entries in a Sunday themeless is ho-hum.

There’s a reason the NYTXW didn’t do Sunday themelesses until, what, like two or three years ago? It’s because they’re a cop-out. I hear that some people enjoy them. I’m happy for them. For me, they’re a non-event. There’s no real low, no real high, just … middle middle middle. Time passes, and then the puzzle is done. Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest. Certainly, from a blogging perspective, this is much much worse, as there’s really hardly anything to say.

Wow.

Now, this post is not intended to be a burial of Rex and his opinions. Even though I wholeheartedly disagree with his dim view of his puzzle.

It’s worth discussing because I’m someone who didn’t initially get the appeal of themeless crosswords.

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[Robyn’s thoroughly impressive Sunday themeless grid.]

I’ve always liked puzzles, and tried my hand at solving New York Times-level crosswords many times before I ended up as part of the puzzle world. Once I really immersed myself in themed puzzles, I quickly started to appreciate the amount of skill, creativity, and hard work that went into a satisfying themed crossword.

I was slower to come around on themeless puzzles. I liked figuring out the trick of a themed puzzle, and I didn’t give themeless puzzles much thought. Thankfully, friends of the blog Patti Varol and Keith Yarborough (both of whom also helped open my eyes to so many terrific puzzle outlets and constructors) encouraged me to solve themeless puzzles more.

And I started to see that you don’t need a theme to show off the same skill, creativity, and hard work that goes into a crossword.

As I said in my wrap-up of the Boswords 2020 Fall Themeless League (yeah, I went from never solving themeless crosswords to eagerly anticipating a two-month tournament full of them!):

I really enjoyed seeing what creative constructors could do with crosswords once freed from the shackles of a theme. The long, crossing entries can certainly be intimidating at the start — especially if you read three or four clues in a row and feel like your brain has gone blank — but the sheer inventiveness of the entries you get to see, often stacked close together, is really cool.

And, like a jigsaw puzzle, the solving experience sneaks up on you. You get a few words here, a few letters there, and suddenly everything starts to fall into place. Clues that eluded you make total sense on a second or third reading, or the now-obvious wordplay punches you in the face.

Eventually, you’re left with a full grid and a real sense of accomplishment. (Not to mention a growing sense of wonder that the constructor managed to make all those crossings work.)

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And it’s disappointing that an influential voice in crosswords sees a themeless Sunday puzzle as a waste of time. (Constructor Eric Berlin has rightfully noted that Rex isn’t against all themeless puzzles, and has stated in the past that he often looks forward to the Friday themeless.)

Which makes it all the more strange that he’d choose to die on this particular hill. Robyn is a well-respected constructor, and her byline alone is a welcome sight for many puzzle fans, themeless or themed. The response online to this themeless puzzle was very positive overall; even in the comments section of Rex’s blog post, the majority of the responses celebrated Robyn’s themeless as a terrific solve.

I would argue that the occasional Sunday themeless puzzle is a good thing. Not only is it a nice break from the expected norm, but having puzzles the caliber of this one will bring more eyes to the merits of themeless crosswords in general.

The sheer variety in fresh, exciting, and thought-provoking grid entries alone makes them worthwhile. Themed puzzles are great, obviously, but they can also severely limit how interesting you can make the rest of the grid once the theme has been figured out.

Great constructors and engaging cluing can overcome that, but it’s a limitation that themeless crosswords simply don’t have. The fill is EVERYTHING, and that pushes constructors to be as creative as possible with their grid designs, the often ambitious crossings and stacks of long entries, and all that delightfully unexpected vocabulary.

Rex says, “Solving one of these unthemed Sundays, even a very competent one like this, isn’t necessarily better than solving a disastrous themed Sunday, to be honest.”

I think you’ll find many solvers and constructors disagree. There’s as much beauty and value in a skilled themeless as there is in a deftly-constructed themed puzzle.

And to say a well-constructed themeless is on par with a “disastrous” themed puzzle is just ridiculous. Sure, for his brand, he gets more mileage taking apart a bad puzzle than discussing a good one, but a good solve and good blog fodder aren’t the same thing at all.

As I said before, you can learn a lot from Rex’s blog. Plenty of constructors have gleaned valuable lessons about theme entries, grid fill, and more from his critiques. But punching down against a particular style of crosswording benefits no one, particularly when it can easily be misconstrued as a shot against themeless puzzles in general..

Thank you, Robyn Weintraub, for a banger of a Sunday puzzle, and thank you, Evan Birnholz, for championing the cause of themeless crosswords (and bringing this to my attention.)

Do you enjoy themeless puzzles, fellow PuzzleNationers? Let us know in the comments section below! We’d love to hear from you.


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