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Although a great many people work the crosswords in their local newspaper, buy puzzle books and magazines, and spend hours scratching their heads over devilish clues and fiendish themes, almost no one gives much thought to the people who construct, edit, or publish crossword puzzles. In "Gridlock," Matt Gaffney, one of the fifteen or so people in the U.S. who can claim the designation of professional cruciverbalist (someone who actually earns a living creating crossword puzzles), presents a fascinating behind-the-scenes look at the crossword puzzle business.
This book is a veritable potpourri of facts, interviews, and anecdotes about crosswords. Gaffney interviews New York Times puzzle superstar Will Shortz, of course, but he also talks to New York Sun puzzle editor Peter Gordon and provides a humorous look at the Times/Sun crossword wars. He draws an interesting and touching portrait of reclusive constructor Henry Hook. He visits the offices of Penny Press, a large publisher of puzzle magazines. He discusses the marketing of original and reprint crossword collections, and describes the mind set needed to create and clue a specialty crossword for a niche market. He even takes the book to a personal level as he offers frank details about his own struggles, frustrations, and triumphs in getting his puzzles marketed.
There is ample information about the cardinal rules of crossword construction and about what makes a puzzle good enough to beat out the competition for publication in the New York Times. Although the reader gets to look over Gaffney's shoulder as he creates a puzzle, there is not enough information about the mysterious mechanics of filling a grid so that I would be able to successfully construct a puzzle myself.Read more ›
Gridlock, along with its recent predecessors in various media (Marc Romano's book, Crossworld, and the film Wordplay) opens up a world at once familiar and arcane. The familiar is the crossword puzzle, pastime of tens of millions (or maybe now fives of millions, what with sudoku's encroachments). The arcane is the world of top solvers and constructors who congregate every March at the American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford, CT. I am a part of this world, having been in the Class B playoffs one year, and having done crosswords and other word and non-word puzzles for 50 years.
Puzzle mavens will find much that is new here--and much that is familiar. The new includes: (1) an attempt to determine how badly sudoku and other logic puzzles are undermining the more literate and humanistic discipline of word puzzles; (2) a peek at the judges' room at Stamford; (3) a visit to Penny Press publications; (4) a sad/funny description of his attempt, with Matt Jones, to market hip, alternative crossword puzzles; (5) in-depth discussion of grid construction. Not so new are the obligatory Will Shortz bio and house tour, and the run-through of the Stamford tournament (though not the same one covered in Crossworld and Wordplay).
There are many new insights, some quite funny. I agree with him that it is counterintuitive that so many crossword constructors are math-based, and that it would be difficult to imagine witty solving stories involving sudoku conquests. I can also personally vouch for the fact that solving giga-sized crosswords can produce lower back pain!
However, the big problem with the book is that he misses many opportunities for making his chosen topics more interesting and useful.Read more ›
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Disclaimer: As in the case of the previous reviewer, I was contacted by the author and asked to review this book. I, too, had panned CROSSWORLD on Amazon and was hoping for something better out of GRID LOCK. Regrettably, this one is only marginally better in content and far worse in the quality of its writing (which perhaps demonstrates that an encyclopedic knowledge of obscure words and phrases is hardly a guarantee of ability to write well).
On the positive side, GRID LOCK provides a fascinating insider perspective on the business of crosswords, from their conception and construction to their marketing and final appearance in a public venue (daily newspaper, specialty magazine, puzzle book, or on the Internet). Matt Gaffney starts out with a clever tip of his hat to the travails of the business side of crosswords: on his commuter train trip to the annual American Crossword Puzzle Tournament in Stamford (CT), he observes the up-and-coming Sudoku puzzle game soundly trouncing crosswords among his fellow passengers. He follows this with an introduction to Will Shortz, the much-lionized editor of the New York Times crossword, and a brief treatise on the dominant forces in the crossword book publishing business, Penny Press and Kappa Publishing. Later, Mr. Gaffney relates -- at rather too much length -- his personal story of establishing a paying career as a cruciverbal constructor, offers insight into the use of computers for puzzle construction, and walks us through the construction of a themed puzzle.Read more ›