“All It Takes Is Inexhaustible Patience, Limitless Time, and a Warped Mind”: A Conversation with Adrienne Raphel

By Stephanie BurtMay 27, 2020

“All It Takes Is Inexhaustible Patience, Limitless Time, and a Warped Mind”: A Conversation with Adrienne Raphel
I HAD BEEN DOING crosswords (the easier, American kind) off and on, with partners or alone, for maybe two decades when I learned that Adrienne Raphel — at the time, a graduate student at Harvard, and before that an Iowa Writers’ Workshop poet — planned to write part, and then all, of her dissertation on crosswords and their literary implications. In the same year, I learned with great pleasure just how good she had become at literary journalism, at the kind of long-form reviewing I do and at the kind of synthetic, reporting-included cultural coverage that I don’t do: I read her work in The New Yorker online and elsewhere. And then I started to see where the dissertation — no, the book — was going: into the greater world of human beings who read for pleasure, human beings who might not care about interpretations of interpretations of interpretations of Milton (which, for the record, I do care about!), but who absolutely care about the history of the thing with the boxes and grids and puns and inside jokes, the thing that has become a highlight of their Sundays, or their every day, the thing whose interpersonal and social and ludic and indeed literary implications have never been fully explored.

Thinking Inside the Box, the trade press book that is also a dissertation that is also a masterful first prose book (her actual first book was a book of poems), discusses the history of the American crossword and of the British cryptic crossword, the major figures on both sides, the fun and the fast pace of an in-person tournament (remember when we had in-person events? good times), and the philosophy of construction, cluing, and solving from the first Word Cross to the end of time — when we become crow dross, when doom strikes us down or cows drs, when we must pull our way out of our quarantined future by learning to row with our scow rods, when we take refuge in the imaginary realm of Sinbad and have to fight off sword rocs. 

You see what kind of a mess this book can make of your brain. Please ignore me and listen to Adrienne as she discusses the past and the future of crosswords. She and I conducted our interview via Google Hangouts and speedy typing in mid-May.


STEPHANIE BURT: I already know something about the history part of [your] book (since I kind of watched you write it), so I’m going to start at the other end, with the present-day culture of crossword fiends, people who organize their social lives and their free time around being or becoming really good at crosswords. How would you describe that subculture? How is it different (if it is) from other subcultures and social milieux? 

ADRIENNE RAPHEL: I love this question. Getting to know people along the gradient of cruciverbal immersion, from casual participant to crossword superfan, has been the joy of living with this book. I’m not an expert in other subcultures so I’m not sure I can speak to differences across various groups, but I can point out a few things that strike me about today’s crossword fiends.

Go ahead.

One thing I wasn’t expecting going into the book was the huge diversity of types of people who live in crossword-land. I had a stereotype in my head of a solver who was older, retired, probably white, white-collar, lived in the suburbs. And that was completely blown out of the water.

I had similar stereotype going in.

And to be honest, that was probably more true than not, even just a few decades ago.

But now …

But today’s crossword community is really diverse, and celebrates diversity. And that’s only growing and expanding, even since I finished writing the book.

What’s changed about that community since you finished, then?

Efforts such as constructors Erik Agard and Will Nediger organizing a Facebook group to mentor crossword people, focusing on people who didn’t feel like their voices were being represented as well as they could be. Just this March, constructor Rebecca Falcon organized a “Crossword Women’s March,” meaning that major editors would only publish constructors by women in the month of March. “Queer Qrosswords” and “The Inkubator” are two great indie crosswords that encourage diverse voices. In a world where we can meet in groups again, there are more and more crossword tournaments, and functions like crossword demos in breweries, that are both by and for people who might not have seen themselves in this puzzle world a few decades ago.

That’s a good segue into what I’m afraid is an obvious next question: right now, we can’t meet in groups, except online, but crosswords can be done while socially distanced. Has the crossword community done anything (either in terms of bringing people together and feeling helpful, or in terms of formal innovation) in response to the pandemic?

Yes! A couple of immediate examples: The American Crossword Puzzle Tournament (ACPT), the biggest annual tournament, was supposed to be [this] March 20–22. Obviously not. In about 36 hours, some crossword folx organized “couchwords,” an online ACPT, for the main day of the tournament. About 1,000 people joined! That’s 300 more than usually come to the IRL ACPT. It was amazing and really worked well. Also, Will Shortz and his crew at the Times put together an “emergency puzzle mania” for May, a band-aid but a nice bonus gift. And The New Yorker has introduced “Partner Mode,” where you can co-solve a puzzle online. So these represent three categories of fixes as I see them: online substitutes for IRL things, more puzzles to help people keep their minds off pandemic, and new solutions for whatever times we’re in.

Will Shortz — the most famous currently active constructor, I imagine — becomes a character in your book. Did you know that would happen?

Quick clarification: He’s the most famous active crossword editor, for sure, but the puzzles are constructed by lots of different people who submit to The New York Times. It’s funny, I originally pitched the project as a magazine piece, to write a profile of Will Shortz, because I thought that he was such an intriguing figure — like, if Will Shortz didn’t exist, the puzzle world would have had to invent him.

An earlier version of your book project tried really, really hard to find connections between the history of crosswords and the history of poetry, which didn’t quite work. I wonder whether crosswords as a verbal or paraliterary form are in some ways an alternative to, or an opposite for, “literary” arrangements of language as we usually understand them? Or whether you are trying to start telling us how to see crosswords as a literary form? One with subgenres, a formal history, connotation, emotional arcs for the reader/solver, perhaps even a “protagonist” or central character — but who would that be?

You’re right that trying to force a connection between crosswords and poetry never really worked! To answer your question with another question, here’s another way I’ve been thinking about crosswords and literary form: why can’t AI solve crosswords better than humans can? Or, what are the things about crosswords as a form (literary, paraliterary) that still tap into some sort of ineffable human creativity? I’m interested in all the things that crosswords ask our brain to do, both in constructing them and solving them: the ways in which clues and answers relate, and the ways all of those associations pull on riddle, metaphor, symbol, et cetera. And I’m also interested in the totally math-brain ways in which the grid’s letters get put together.

Can you give examples for our LARB audience? I know there are examples in the book.

A great example clue by the amazing Erik Agard is: “Pool noodles.” The answer is mind meld. So “pool” is a verb and “noodles” means “brains.”

That’s lovely! I have trouble with obscure puns.

Yeah, I find this an insanely elegant and good clue, and one in which misdirection is firing on all levels, yet it’s inevitable once you get it!

Are you a constructor right now?

Ha, I’d say — sort of! I dabble. I’ve been writing some for the Paris Review, which has been really fun.

Has the Paris Review historically run crosswords?

Nope! I’m the first, as far as I know.

Did you have to sell it or did the web editor Craig [Morgan Teicher] say, “Of course!”

I like doing them because I like thinking about different things that crosswords can do, and different things I can do with crosswords — these ones really highlight authors in the archives. Craig had commissioned me to write a couple of crosswords for internal Publishers Weekly things when he was there, and then during book promotion, I pitched to him and Nadja [Spiegelman], and they were both immediately into it.

We’ve been talking about NYC institutions, and Shortz is from Indiana but lives in [the] New York metropolitan area. Is there a regional difference between East Coast and West Coast or East Coast and non-East Coast puzzles? (I’m really hoping there is a Minnesota School of Crossword Construction.)

Oh, really interesting question. There’s a fantastic puzzle collection in Indiana University’s rare books library, the Jerry Slocum Puzzle Collection — mostly mechanical puzzles, but I went out there for book research and it was fascinating. Anyway, to your question: Crosswords that are in a publication typically reflect the publication that they’re in, so a New York Times or New Yorker crossword will likely be sort of New York–centric, regardless of where the constructors come from, but will also have a national flavor. Syndicated puzzles in newspapers nationwide don’t usually have regional flairs, also for that reason. They need to appeal to all audiences. On the other hand, there’s a constructor named Myles Mellor who makes a living solely writing puzzles for super-niche audiences, like Westchester Magazine or Dog Fanciers — and his puzzles are totally tailored to these regional group. (I want there to be a “Minnesota School of Crossworders” too!)

How many people have constructing or editing crosswords as their primary source of income, as Mellor does? Is it in the single digits, as with poets, or the low triple digits, as I suspect is the case with SF writers? Do people teach courses in how to construct (better) crosswords, or is it entirely learn-by-doing, send-out-your-work, hope-you-make-a-connection?

In answer to your first question, it’s single digits for now but definitely growing. The New York Times and other places pay more than they used to for puzzles, but construction is a freelance business model and it’s almost always a side gig. There are crossword editors for publications who can make a living (like Shortz), and the move to online has also opened up some of the economics of the crossword world. The Times employs a whole team for the digital games division. The short answer is, though, mostly crosswords are more a labor for love than for money (like poems).

As for improving crossword construction, there are awesome crossword mentors out there, like Nancy Salomon, Andrea Carla Michaels, Ross Trudeau, among others. Basically if you email any constructor you love, they will probably help you, or will point you toward a person who has bandwidth to help! So not really formal schools, but tons of informal support systems.

Constructing and solving crosswords resemble — but aren’t — a number of other human activities: constructing and solving math puzzles; writing poems, especially poems in challenging forms; playing trivia games or other nongeometric word games; taking part in an intricate conversation; cryptography. Is there a quick way to describe what’s unique about crosswords? What they do that nothing else does?

Is it too easy to say that what’s unique about crosswords is that it actually can involve most or all of the activities you mention?

I mean, that’s an argument of the form “X is great because many things can A or B or C or D, but only X can A and B and C and D.” I was wondering if there was any other way to see it! Maybe there’s not. I have been known to make arguments of that form myself.

I do think that crosswords pull on all cross-sections of the brain: the simplicity of the form (here’s a blank grid, here are clues, go!) make them both predictable and infinitely malleable. 

That’s really good. Traditionally literary kinds of writing (including subcultural/lower prestige forms of writing, like fantasy novels!) occupy all kinds of space between the secular/present/realistic and the religious/transcendent. Puzzles and games are normally taken, in our culture, to be entirely secular. Is that a mistake? Is there or can there ever be a religious dimension to crossword creating and solving?

Oh that’s a fantastic question, because I think there’s both a flip answer and a serious answer to it. The flip answer is that Bible-themed crosswords are extremely popular. The former crossword editor at USA Today who got in a lot of trouble for plagiarizing crosswords publishes books of Bible crosswords, and of course you can put any content you want into a grid! The serious answer is that word games have had a mystical component for centuries.

Religious content in the answers is of course not what I meant! Mmmmm say more. (What about George Herbert?!)

Yes, George Herbert, exactly!! Word squares, especially the Sator Square (five-by-five anagram), were found all over the Roman Empire as magic amulets.

Because literary education and literary life in America is so forking presentist, many extremely literate and thoughtful LARB readers know el zippo about Herbert, let alone the Sator Square. Explain both briefly? And other Roman amulets?

The Sator Square is a five-by-five word square with a five-word Latin palindrome, SATOR AREPO TENET OPERA ROTAS, which roughly translates to “The farmer Arepo works a plough.” People in the Roman Empire went nuts for this thing — there are Sator Squares in the ruins of Pompeii, and it appears carved all over for centuries — they thought of it as a magic object, like it could ward off the devil or something. Okay, feel free to jump in with a more concise Herbert explanation! But basically, Herbert’s concrete poetry like The Temple used the visual forms of the poems as well as the content to build devotional messages.

Anagrams too, not just shaped poems.

Yes, exactly. “Easter Wings” is easy to explain: the shaped poem, in the form of butterfly wings, echoes the form in its content (the poem becomes “Most thinne. / With thee”) at the center of the “wings” — and it does so for devotional purposes. (That’s shape again, not anagrams.)

Do you remember the first crossword you completed? Or the first one you saw?

Not the exact first crossword, but I definitely remember watching my mom solve every night when I was a kid, and thinking: Oh, cool, that’s a thing grown-ups do — or, to put it the other way, something that defines you as being a grown-up is the ability to do the New York Times crossword.

Wow, how old were you?

Probably eight or nine. The documentary Wordplay, about Will Shortz and the crossword puzzle tournament, came out my senior year of high school.

Did you see it with friends or on your own?

With my family, I’m sure, because we told my mom she should enter the tournament. I also wrote a little pamphlet of word games and puzzles as a senior year capstone project … so basically I have one idea over and over.

At that point (just before college — Princeton, right?) were you already aware of British-style cryptics?

Yes, actually — another family friend’s father was one of the most notorious setters in England. He had a whole Christmas cryptic newsletter.

Notorious? Explain. Is the newsletter in the book?

Stephen Sondheim and Leonard Bernstein were two of the only American subscribers to the newsletter. Yeah, I mention it (at least in a footnote I’m sure).

Oh, right, Sondheim! Say more if you like about the Sondheim crossword connection. (Happy 90th birthday to Sondheim!)

(Happy 90th!!!) So definitely a huge part of my own cruciverbal fangirling is the Sondheim connection. I’m a huge Sondheim fan, for poetry and musical reasons.

Yes, me too, though you are probably more knowledgeable than I. Tell our viewers at home about Sondheim and crosswords, please.

So Sondheim loves crosswords, but specifically cryptic crosswords. In the ’60s, he wrote a piece for New York magazine introducing Americans to British-style cryptics, essentially claiming that these intricately wordplay-fueled versions of the crossword were the only “real” crosswords.

Were they unknown in America until then?

He also wrote a whole bunch of his own cryptics and fiendishly difficult crossword-type word puzzles for New York magazine. They weren’t totally unknown but there wasn’t a major American publication that published them, so they had to trickle across the pond.

Can you give an example of a Sondheim clue?

One second, let me just grab the copy of his New York magazine puzzles. Okay, wow, I always forget how complex these are! A simple one is the clue “Entertain and wind again? (6)” for “regale” (re + gale) — but that’s like level 1.5 out of 10.

Send one more. I liked that one.

Yeah, if you’ve watched Meryl Streep and Audra McDonald and Christine Baranski sing “Ladies Who Lunch” as often as I have, you’ll love these. Okay, so here’s another: the clue is “Hot spot horas (5,7)” and the instructions tell you that it's an anagram of two words that indicate a third word, which is the word to be entered into the grid. So the answer to the anagram is “Porthos” and “Athos,” and then the answer you enter is ARAMIS (for the three Musketeers). That’s maybe level 3.5/4 out of 10.

Holy rusted metal, Batman! I’m just taking that in.

Haha, you and me both.

When crosswords hit their first peak of popularity in the 1920s there was a moral panic and a media backlash, right? Because they were addictive time-wasters? Can you compare that moral panic to anything more recent?

Yeah exactly. The New York Times published huffy op-eds about how crosswords taught you nothing and were basically uncreative fill-in-the-blank time-wasters. And libraries got angry at patrons for hogging dictionaries and encyclopedias away from people doing “real” research, and lamented that no one was reading anymore. The tone is similar in a lot of ways to articles these days about video games. The idea of the crossword as a menace directly competing with other forms of “better” literature also feels like some stuff written about comics, though you’d know more about that.

Some brain science here: games like Candy Crush — which offer short-term, unpredictable, immediate rewards (and glow!), with an apparent or real element of skill and an element of chance — do things to your brain’s reward system, almost like slot machines. Do crosswords do those things? Do we know? Is there fMRI brain science on solvers?

There’s been a bunch of studies on crosswords and dementia, including a really cool study with H. M., the patient that the movie Memento is based on. H. M., the amnesiac, loved crosswords and would happily do the same ones over and over. Some researchers (late in H. M.’s life) got the idea to test and see if he could improve on crossword clues that he shouldn't have been able to know anything about because they referred to events that happened after he lost his memory. Crazily enough, he did improve, though he didn’t know how he knew the answers. So crosswords helped reveal some possible links between short-term and long-term memory, or at least rote learning capacities.

Now that the book is out, are you treated differently in crossword circles? Or in virtual/online tournaments, if you do any?

I’ve started dabbling in crossword construction, as I mentioned. I can’t help myself, I love a formal experiment. The crossword community has been incredibly supportive!

At the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament, I’ve served as a judge the past couple of years, and plan to keep doing so. I’m still in the way bottom of competitive solvers, and honestly I much prefer the judges’ room at this point.

I love a formal experiment too! I’m okay at New York Times Sunday crosswords, but I can’t solve a British cryptic to save my life. When I’m lucky, I get a few clues. Anything I can do to improve my showing?

Re: cryptics: I think I might join you in making this my new quarantine puzzle project.

First stop, definitely check out Alan Connor’s lively blog at the Guardian. He posts really helpful 101 guides to different types of cryptic clues. I feel like Duolingo should introduce a new language: Cryptic Crosswordese.


Stephanie Burt is professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them After Callimachus; Advice from the Lights, an NEA Big Read selection; and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems.

LARB Contributor

Stephanie Burt is professor of English at Harvard and the author of several books of poetry and literary criticism, among them After Callimachus; Advice from the Lights, an NEA Big Read selection; and Don’t Read Poetry: A Book About How to Read Poems. She lives in Belmont, Massachusetts, with her partner, two kids, too many X-Men comics, and two astonishing cats.


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