Tanzina Vega: Back with you on The Takeaway, I'm Tanzina Vega. We're going to end this show with a topic that's been puzzling me, need a clue? The answer is nine letters across and something that's become a staple of the nation's leading newspapers. If you guess crossword puzzle, you're probably one of the many people listening who spends their weekend morning solving The New York Times popular crossword puzzles, whether it's by pen, pencil, or smartphone.
But like many other parts of the news industry, for years crosswords have largely been written and edited by older white men and they determine who and what makes it onto the grid, often excluding women and people of color, and the LGBTQ+ community in the construction and content of crosswords.
How can we get the crossword world to become more inclusive and think outside the box, or in this case, the 15 by 15 grid? How can the crossword world become more inclusive and think outside the box, or in this case, the 15 by 15 grid? For that and more, I'm joined by K. Austin Collins, a film critic at Rolling Stone and crossword constructor for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and more. Kameron, welcome back to the show.
Austin Collins: Hi, there. Good to hear from you.
Tanzina: That's a pretty amazing gig that you've got there. How did you get into crossword puzzles?
Austin Collins: Well, my mom, solved them for most of my childhood and then, like everyone else who starts out getting published, I was just freelancing. I was submitting and submitting to The New York Times and getting rejected and rejected and then after a couple of years of that, I got my first puzzling.
Tanzina: What makes you like crosswords? Why was that the medium that you thought was the one to sort of lean into?
Austin Collins: Honestly, it's funny you ask because I'm much more of a constructor than a solver. I do solve the daily puzzle on The Times, but for me, it's the same as refurbishing furniture or any kind of craft hobby. It's making something, it's thinking, but you also have a flow state where, for me, it's just I step back and a few hours later, I have a grid. I can't really explain it, it's just sort of a relaxing thing for me.
Tanzina: It's a flow. I personally I'm terrified of doing some of these crosswords, but you are one of several Black crossword constructors who was recently featured in The New York Times as part of its celebration of Black constructors. When we think about race in crosswords, and in particular the constructor role here, tell us how or how not diverse the community is?
Austin Collins: I think part of the reason that we had a Black constructor's week last week, this year, and last year we had the same for Women's History Month, we had a women's constructors week is because the diversity issue is a bit lacking. For Black constructors, out of the seven days, we only had six constructors because the two of us who might have been available to do a Sunday puzzle had to be slotted for other days.
Just to give you an example, we did have a seventh Black constructor run this week, but it just gives you a sense of it was a very, very small pool and The New York Times puzzle runs every day of the year. [laughs] It could afford to be more diverse. At the New Yorker, for example, two of the six constructors featured in The New York Times last week are on the staff at the New Yorker, and The New Yorker staff has many, many, many fewer people available to it than New York Times does.
It's not the most diverse crowd and that's something that we're working on. That's something that people are going out of their way to, for example, mentor younger constructors of color, women. I'm getting more women doing Friday and Saturday puzzles which is when seamless puzzles run, which historically have been very, very, very male. Thinking about these things, because there's just really no reason why there's just no science behind the idea that making crosswords appeals to some races more than others, it really is a matter of who feels like this is something they could do. Who feels like it's something that they're invited to do?
Tanzina: Let's talk about the clues themselves and for some reason, I think often about things like standardized tests where those have been criticized often for not necessarily their difficulty, but for presenting word problems and other things that are really disconnected to the students that might be taking those tests, particularly if they haven't had certain life experiences and the rest and I wonder if crosswords are the same. Are the clues that we see often reflective of the lack of diversity in the crossword constructing world and if so, how do we see that potentially changing?
Austin Collins: Well, they absolutely can be. I give you an example of that, you could have the name, for example, Carl in the puzzle or another good one is Dee, D-E-E, three letters. For me my instinctive way to clue that would be in terms of Ruby Dee, or Billy Dee Williams, and for another constructor who doesn't have that in mind, it could be any number of other things, which is fine, but when you do that, with everything in the puzzle that does have that leeway when you opt for a white reference or an older reference, you can include the name John any number of ways, but he's been included as linen too many times rather.
It does make a bit of a difference and also just if you put Beyonce in the puzzle, or if you put Rita Moreno on a puzzle, or whatever, they are names that take up a bit of space, and you're probably more inclined to include these people if you care about them. Who you are, but really also what you care about, and what you're sensitive to, all of that plays a role. The idea for me is for all of us, no matter who you are to represent diversity of things in our grids because they're solved by a diversity of people, but we aren't all thinking in those terms.
Tanzina: There are people listening now who are probably saying, Kameron, what's the secret to solving crossword puzzles and since you construct them, do you have any advice?
Austin Collins: Yes, I always start with two things. I look for all the fill-in blanks because those are usually pretty easy, and I look for all the proper nouns that I might know because those are nowhere to dump. If you know who wrote this song, or whatever is being clued, start with that stuff, and the wordplay will come later.
Tanzina: Have you ever gotten pushback for any of your clues that people said we didn't know who this person was?
Austin Collins: I've gotten a lot of that. I've gotten a lot of pushback for naughtiness [laughs] in the puzzle. I put cuddle buddy in The New York Times once and someone said it made them very uncomfortable which I feel for them, it's quite sad to me, but yes, I've gotten all kinds of pushback.
Tanzina: [laughs] I'm sure you have. Okay, Austin Collins is a film critic at Rolling Stone and crossword constructor for The New Yorker, The New York Times, and more. Kameron, thanks for joining us.
New York Public Radio transcripts are created on a rush deadline, often by contractors. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of New York Public Radio’s programming is the audio record.