“Cross words about the crossword” — readers Karen Banse and Jonathan Mandel each wrote with a similar play on words. They are among the readers who have emailed recently to lament changes in The Times’ Sunday crossword puzzle.
The complaints have a sad origin. Sylvia Bursztyn, who had been creating Sunday crosswords for The Times since 1980, died Dec. 30. Her last puzzle was published Jan. 9.
Since then, puzzles by Merl Reagle, which had alternated weeks with Bursztyn’s, have run each Sunday.
Bursztyn had a loyal following. She joined Barry Tunick in April 1980 to help create the Sunday crossword and continued on her own after his death in 2007. Though Reagle has his own cadre of fans across the country, his style is quite different from hers.
In recent weeks, readers have complained that Reagle’s puzzles are “way-out-of-the-box challenging,” “stilted, relying on puns” and “an exercise in irritation.”
“Change is a hard thing, and solving is a very personal thing,” Reagle said by email.
Reagle’s Oscar-themed puzzle on Feb. 27 used numerals in two of the answers, which raised some hackles. “Stop using numbers in your puzzles,” Carolyn Gordon wrote in an email that she asked be forwarded to Reagle. “It isn’t cute, and it isn’t clever. It’s just cheating, plain and simple. If you want to SPELL out the numbers, as in ‘five’ and ‘three,’ that’s allowed, but using the number depicted as a number isn’t fair.”
Reagle said the use of numbers — or multiple letters, or easily drawn shapes — in an answer square is common in crossword magazines as well as in the New York Times puzzle.
“I wouldn’t want to do one every week — far from it — but I thought I’d at least do a few with numerals for starters,” he said in his email. “Mind you, this is not a casual, willy-nilly thing; the numerals have to be parts of theme answers, not just something thrown in for variety’s sake. In the case of my recent Oscar crossword it was necessary because the movies being punned on were ‘127 Hours’ and ‘Toy Story 3’ — and spelling the numbers out would have looked pretty weird.”
This type of puzzle, Reagle said, is called a rebus. “Often the idea is that more than one letter has to go into a single square, such as an E and a D (in a puzzle called, aptly, ‘My Shrunken Ed Collection’),” he said. “Or in a puzzle called ‘Ring-a-Ding-Ding’ you might have to draw a little bell in a single square. Thus, ‘rebellion’ would occupy six squares rather than nine — the letters RE would go in the first two squares, then you’d have to draw a little bell in the next square, and then the letters ION would go in the next three squares. And it would work going down as well, with, say, ‘Southern belle’ crossing on the ‘bell’ square.
“Themes have gotten pretty adventurous in the last 30 or 40 years. I’ve always felt it strange that the Los Angeles area, which is known as the center of American pop culture and entertainment, has never been exposed to these kinds of puzzles in the Calendar section of the L.A. Times. (I’ve done it quite a bit in the magazine, but never in Calendar.) It always seemed like it should have been the other way around — that L.A. would be the hotbed of innovative themes, and stuffy New Englanders would be the ones who pooh-poohed the ‘gimmicks.’ But even the crossword world has its share of ironies.”
Reagle, 61, who had his first crossword published in the New York Times when he was 16, said he was a fan of Tunick and Bursztyn’s puzzles. “I thought Barry’s punny clues were excellent and Sylvia’s themes very entertaining, and I solved every one of their puzzles when I lived in Santa Monica from 1980, when they started, through 1993, when I moved.”
However, he pointed out a difference between their style of construction and his. “There was a sameness that eventually got to me — not only in the themes but in the grids, since for their first 15 years or so they reused the same grids over and over again, something I could never do (and I’ve never heard of another Sunday constructor doing it),” he said. “For me, the theme answers always determine what the grid looks like.
“Right now, the New York Times crossword is the puzzle that everyone talks about, and I just think that the L.A. Times crossword should get in on that conversation — and even be a bit more fun in the process.”
This column was originally published on LATimes.com on March 31, 2011.