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Crossword politics

Camila Valle interviews crossword puzzle constructor Natan Last. A regular contributor for the New Yorker, Last’s work has also appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, and other publications. He is a graduate student at Columbia University studying immigration and refugee policy. He is also a socialist.

Camila Valle: Crosswords can be understood as reflections of society, particular historical periods, and how ideas change over time—as broad indexes of shifts in consciousness. For instance, when we last spoke, we talked about the Mau Mau, the decolonizing rebels in Kenya. They were clued as “terrorists” and an “African menace” in the 1960s and 1970s, but started being clued as “freedom fighters” in crosswords beginning in the 2000s.

So there is something that happens that is not just about the answer to the clue, but the way that terms are clued, which is significant given the constraints of the crossword form itself. There is no room for elaboration; you just have the clue and the answer to work with.

Natan Last: Yes, absolutely. The crossword form bakes in a historiography of terms. Solvers come to [crosswords] expecting clue and answer to be isomorphic—to have this sense like, “we did our homework and we, the people behind this puzzle, are representing it well.” There are a number of problems with that. One, of course, is concision.

I’m reminded of something Noam Chomsky said, that he didn’t want to go on certain news shows knowing they’d shave down his comments to two or three sentences, then pair them with a contradictory image. There’s a struggle against concision and for autonomy in that story, both relevant to clue writing. And the idea that two words, “African menace,” could sum up the Mau Mau is so silly.

Crosswords also track the imperialist reach of English bringing concepts into its orbit. The New York Times had this data visualization that showed, for instance, when clues for “UBER” shifted from the German word to the company. But you can also see when “NADA” stopped getting a tag about its Spanishness, because, in both a happy story and in a more imperialist story, nada becomes an English word.

But this is also frustrating for crossword writers who can’t control how words are represented in the grid. On weekends, I teach seniors how to write crosswords, and we submit our co-constructed puzzles. We once had “ANWAR” in a Times puzzle, which longtime solvers know is often, if not always, clued as [former president of Egypt] Anwar Sadat. Of course, there are countless Anwars worthy of cultural touch that don’t get clued, including the heterodox economist Anwar Shaikh. The second time ANWAR was clued differently was in our puzzle; the Times editors changed it to “____ al-Awlaki, terrorist targeted in a 2011 American drone strike.”

There’s a lot to comment on. The inanimate object, the drone strike, is worthy of the mantle “American” but al-Alwaki, a Yemeni-American U.S. citizen, is not. For all editors’ hand-wringing over the “breakfast test”—puzzles shouldn’t gross out morning solvers with anything too bodily or grim, this picture of liberal placidness—surely referencing the corpse of an extrajudicial killing fails the test on its own terms! Generally, behind the curtain of the “breakfast test” is a whack-a-mole game premised on a white male ick factor—the roadside bomb “IED” is fine, but “IUD,” get that out of my puzzle.

That clue was swapped without permission. To wake up, grab the paper, and see that the editor had moved the frame of reference from Sadat to this American citizen who hadn’t committed any violent acts, whose case even the American Civil Liberties Union had taken up—to have that cultural frame reoriented was jarring. A simple clue can function like a headline, conveying a perspective while eliding that the writer may not endorse that perspective, let alone that the clue change wasn’t communicated to her in the first place.

semi-completed crossword puzzle by Natan Last in the New Yorker, January 6, 2021

Camila Valle: How do you see your role as someone who creates crosswords? What does it mean to bring politics into that medium? Do you see what you do as a type of political intervention?

Natan Last: I would love to think of the crossword as this literary or paraliterary form, and there are aesthetics there. But also, there are things that I like and that my friends like, and part of me just wants to see that cultural and political universe alive in the puzzle. So in the New Yorker, it is nice to feel like I can put whatever I would like to in the puzzle.

One of the first puzzles I published there had “WORKER-OWNED” in it and referred to the Mondragon collectives. Other puzzles have spotlit “KWAME NKRUMAH,” “ANGELA DAVIS,” and “OSCAR ROMERO” in the grid, people who are important to me politically. There’s definitely a hope that someone looks into the answers after solving.

Crosswords are 15 by 15 squares, so constructors are always on the lookout for 15 letter phrases or words. Getting “PRISON ABOLITION” in a New Yorker puzzle was very fulfilling, and noticing that it has 15 letters is the first part of that. “NO GODS NO MASTERS” is 15 letters, as is “DEFUND THE POLICE,” both of which I have in upcoming grids. I think of these answers as an intervention of the curatorial, a way of amplifying language that matters to me. [They are a way of] arguing that the idea of puzzles ever having been not political, the idea that the clue would ever be factual as opposed to rife with ideology, has always been fantasy.

Camila Valle: There is the individual constructor, but they’re within a larger structure and their work can be contested by mediating forces. Partly because of what we discussed about the form itself, editors have a lot of power and they can defang any radical potential. So then you have the editors becoming the arbiters of cultural relevance and import.

There’s the usual problem of under-representation among puzzle constructors themselves, but also among editors, fact checkers, and test solvers at the traditional big publications like the Times. And that has implications for what aspects of culture are deemed puzzle-worthy and what kinds of information are treated as mainstream versus too niche to include.

Natan Last: Exactly. The puzzle is a collage that reifies culture and says, “all of this is worth knowing.” So there is a political intervention in saying, “the language that I care about and lots of other people care about but hasn’t made its way into the grid—that stuff is worth knowing too.”

Camila Valle: Is there a role alternative crossword spaces, the subcultural scenes outside of traditional publications, play in that context? Is there a way that they make their way into the more mainstream outlets?

Natan Last: What a lot of fellow constructors like Erik Agard and Kameron Collins talk about is this dialectic of expansion and education. When Kameron put “BOOTYLICIOUS” into the New York Times crossword, he made every stale tweed-jacket, elbow-patch-wearing solver write BOOTYLICIOUS with their pen, smack in the middle of the grid. I think that kind of big-hearted trolling is useful.

Frankly, it’s a thing that the New Yorker does really well. Erik had “TOP SURGERY” in a recent New Yorker puzzle—that phrase is everywhere, it just hadn’t been in a puzzle yet. To take what actually is colloquial, everyday language and underscore it in the puzzle can help augment the default cultural perspective.

There is a strong alternative scene, outlets like Queer Qrosswords and the Inkubator—puzzles for and by LGBTQIA people and puzzles for and by women, respectively. Those spaces are a respite from the Times and its occasional crustiness. The oasis function is real. And you can’t put “STRAP ON” in the Times, but you can put it in an alt puzzle or on your own website.

This proliferation of alternative spaces is definitely cultural, but it’s also economic. These venues often have donation-based models and tend to pay constructors in ways no other outlets do, on a commission basis or as a percentage of subscriptions. The flowering of alternative spaces means that the person who put “STRAP ON” in a puzzle or developed a theme about punk bands is seeing a percentage of subscriptions accrue to them, instead of everything going to the Times after you get paid, which is the normal arrangement.

Younger constructors are clear that they shouldn’t have to fight to include their politics or culture in a crossword grid. They’re also much happier to skirt the mainstream and publish puzzles to a blog on a subscription basis, like a Substack or a Patreon. It’s still the logic of the market, but there’s much more autonomy there.

Camila Valle: I know from doing your puzzles that you try to reflect events around the world as they are unfolding and to bring attention to political topics that might not otherwise make it into a grid. That goes together with an approach to popular culture that understands the significance of it, especially for young people, people of color, and people of different genders and sexualities. It means something to put “SEX WORK” or “MARX” in a grid, but it also means something to put “CARDI B” or “MAGGIE NELSON.”

Natan Last: Something that Ben Tausig, an editor I admire, talks about is that representation matters and also representation can fall prey to a neoliberal house of mirrors. Crosswords as a form can walk that line. There is a concessional trap to representation without equitable pay, or diverse editorships, or justice in addressing grievances—and yet of course it matters. It’s that contradiction that we on the Left are learning to talk between the lines about. Because it’s not easy to find rhetoric that doesn’t want to kill off one of those two sides.

There are a few websites that review crosswords. On one called XWord Info, which is a sort of database of all Times puzzles. Every day one of the maintainers of that site posts his thoughts on the puzzle, and his thoughts are terrible. Hokey, incoherent, offensive. Years ago, when I had “WHITE PRIVILEGE” in a puzzle, he said that the puzzle was trying to shame the solver and that he wondered how he would feel if he were white. It’s obviously out of touch. I want to attribute this point to Kameron Collins because he’s really smart about this. If you’re a Black kid reading this website to try to learn the crossword ropes, that is the point at which you pack up and leave. The discouragement is so immense and cloaked in objectivity that you’re just like “fuck it, I’m never going to break into this.”

That’s why alternative spaces are really important, but why pushing back is equally important. It’s not that representation is the lone goal, it’s that it has effects on people interested in the field.

phone operators at the New Yorker Hotel working on a Daily News crossword puzzle contest in 1934

Camila Valle: That also brings up the point of how people think of the audience for crosswords. It’s not just about the constructors and the editors, it’s also about who people think of as the solvers of crosswords at places like the Times. There is an element of going against an imagined, universal archetype of the old, white, usually male New York Times subscriber.

Natan Last: Totally. There are several interesting points there. The first is that that was always the archetypal solver in everyone’s mind, but it’s not clear that it was, empirically, the average solver in reality. I don’t have any insider access to the Times crossword app data, but I would bet the [solvers are] very diverse and, now that it’s an app, skew younger. And there really are moments where an editor or writer can win new solvers.

Erik Agard is someone who is bringing people in, whether that’s putting “AWKWAFINA” in a puzzle or using Sam Smith’s pronouns correctly in a clue—a new kind of inclusion. [Agard is] also going out of his way to mentor constructors from underrepresented groups, taking pains to change the publishing conditions that perpetuate under-representation, a deeper kind of equity. I’m reminded of a tweet about his Big Ole Freak clue—“Megan Thee Stallion was in my grandmother’s crossword today.”

Camila Valle: We have seen the way workers can exert power over content and editorial decisions, separately from things like wages and contracts. I’m thinking of James Bennett resigning from the New York Times over that terrible op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, but also the way that publications have changed their house styles to capitalize Black. Labor plays a role in attempts to shape content itself. That is tied to the recent rise of media unionization efforts and media labor issues more broadly, but what you’re saying is that there is also an influence that is brought to bear ideologically.

Natan Last: Right. And that’s more pronounced in venues like the Times, where editors exert enormous influence over the finished product. That affects who submits, who’s accepted, and what culture shows up in the grid, despite the party line of “anyone can submit a puzzle.”

For freelancers, unionization would do a lot of things, but one thing it would need to do—I don’t know what the precise mechanism would be—is broaden the number of people interested in puzzles. That’s a story in itself, but to me it is no coincidence that Kameron Collins, Anna Shechtman, and our editors, all these people at the New Yorker, have backgrounds in literary and film criticism. Seeing the puzzle as a curatorial space is fundamental to some constructors, to the editor herself, and seemingly everyone who puts labor into the puzzle. Excising the bad—like not putting racial slurs in the puzzle—is a very low bar.

That curatorial process removes the bad, and it also puts forward alternatives. Anna [Shechtman] has put phrases like “PINK TAX” and “ANTHROPOCENE” in a puzzle. Kameron [Collins] is great at highlighting women of color in the arts and in film in particular. Our editors are really happy when “OUT” is clued as the queer magazine or when “BEAR” and “UHAUL” are clued in reference to queer parlance.

Part of this is winning the bare-bones mechanism of editors showing us a preview of the puzzle before it appears. Friends of mine have had clues changed in ways that not only offended their sensibilities—it put their jobs in danger. Imagine being a racial justice advocate, say a public defender, and having editors introduce racism into one of your clues. Unionization and worker power in this space can put a stop to that kind of harm.

Camila Valle: Do you want to speak about working conditions and broader labor issues that affect constructors and how that is tied to the recent wave of media unionization? I know the New Yorker union was recognized a couple of years ago. How do constructors fit into that? I assume that most constructors are freelancers—have there been any connections made to the attempts in publishing to unionize freelancers? I can imagine crosswords occupy a very particular subset in the publishing world that a lot of people may overlook.

Natan Last: We are independent contractors. There is virtually no publication-constructor relationship in which the content producer, the crossword writer, is not a contractor. [However], Ben Tausig’s American Values Club Crossword Puzzle runs on an explicitly socialist business model, with payment floors but no ceiling and revenue directly linked to per-puzzle payment. And the New Yorker unionization effort is amazing. I don’t know whether or not we could or should slot in there, but Ben [Tausig] was involved in talking with the National Writers Union years ago about crossword constructors. I’m a graduate student at Columbia and have been a bit involved in union work there. They’ve suggested the National Writers Union’s Freelance Solidarity Project is an opportunity to revive the discussions Ben kicked off.

One issue with crosswords is intellectual property. You sell away current and future rights. When the Times collects puzzles into compendiums, Our Favorite Crosswords of 2019 or something, that book earns, as far as I can tell, the Times and its editors a good amount of money. Constructors see none of it; introducing a residual system for when our work is collected into books is a must-have. And, to go back to a previous topic, compendiums introduce an incentive to make puzzles evergreen. If a puzzle you make in 2007 is going to appear in a greatest-of book in 2019, then the references to the housing crisis or summer bops that year aren’t desirable. So it’s an intersection of the whitewashing of content plus labor contestation. We should be able to put “ACAB” in a puzzle even if no one says that five years from now, though hopefully they will.

Camila Valle: And that has everything to do with the political events outside of the workplace shaping that elbow room. But it also seems, based on what you’re saying, that at the center of the labor tensions in crossword constructing are autonomy, and workers having direct power over what they produce, which is quite significant.

Natan Last: Yes, it is much more about content. All the necessary, quotidian reasons for why unionization is crucial still apply—grievance structures, consistency of pay, all those things are necessities for people’s wellness. But I think you’re right that, if we’re going to have a grievance, outside of more procedural infrastructure, it would be about being able to autonomously put things like ACAB in a puzzle. And maybe even accepting for myself whatever consequences that might incur, but it ought to be up to me. At the New Yorker we are more in control as writers of the way something appears in publication. I would know if I could put it in there and I would know if they wanted to shave the edge off, and we could have that back and forth. There is little to no outlet for that at other publications.

a woman looking up “Egyptian Sun God” in a tiny crossword puzzle dictionary strapped to her wrist, circa the 1920s

Camila Valle: Part of what I love about crosswords and I think makes them such critical cultural and linguistic territory is just the form—it is so explicitly about language and its contestations. There are no pretenses that it could be about something else. It is quite literally about this word and the ideas in society that are attached to it.

Natan Last: I totally agree. I’ve talked with others about what it could mean to decolonize the puzzle. Like with friends who speak Spanish, when ANOS is in a puzzle, there are no diacritical marks, no tildes. Años has been clued as “Cien ____ de soledad,” and without the eñe that means “one hundred anuses of solitude.” It’s a funny moment but also asks what to do with the “foreignness” of foreign language in a puzzle. To counter the stranglehold of English, we can simply put more non-English into the grid, and then you rub up against the fact that the puzzle form isn’t built for that necessarily.

Camila Valle: Yeah, I’m always screwed when I see a German clue.

Natan Last: Exactly. German always looks so weird to me. But if you put BWANA in a crossword, which roughly means sir in Swahili—and tens of millions of people speak Swahili—people would be like, “what is this alphabet soup?” Erik Agard, for example, put Nneka Ogwumike, a Nigerian-American WNBA star, in a puzzle—everyone called that “alphabet soup.” One move toward decolonizing the puzzle is including non-English and non-European names, to get people to stop thinking that things from the Global South are strange, while things from the Global North aren’t. Erik [Agard] is great at that.

One fun aspect of solving puzzles is that there is a collapse or blurring of labor and leisure. When puzzles got big in the 1920s—Adrienne Raphel writes about this in her book Thinking Inside the Box—people would write op-eds, “this is taking you away from your real work,” “this is a time sink.” To the extent that puzzles are a kind of non-productive productivity, there is this Marxist way in which I’m just down to complete a puzzle, but no one is asking “how much work did you do just now?” There are stories of people looking things up in dictionaries and encyclopedias in libraries to solve puzzles, and librarians would be like, “dictionaries and encyclopedias are for people doing real research, not for your game.” I like the aesthetics of puzzles trying to not be a commodity, at least in terms of time, even as they have, in the last ten, twenty years, proliferated as one.

Camila Valle: That’s interesting, this idea that learning and knowledge and researching are not supposed to be ends in themselves, but rather meant to be channeled into commodities that are not understood in any way as leisurely. This is a problem that is also talked and thought about in other workplace struggles, like in the game industry. Obviously leisure is enjoyable, but it’s also created by people’s labor and is commodified. The crossword world in particular occupies a unique space because it’s not seen as its own industry. It’s not within the game industry. It’s a strange and small part of publishing. And that plays an ideological role in how seriously it is taken and what role it plays in a larger market and labor context.

Natan Last: Totally. The fact that it’s getting more attention is because people with outside perspectives are trying to figure out how seriously to take it. As an object, one thing I’ve always loved about the crossword is how varied and distinct subcultures can project their pet questions onto puzzles, which after all is just some language linked together. The critics sense cultural adjudication. The linguists see a revelatory language game. The neuroscientists wonder about cognitive benefits and mitigating dementia. The AI geeks see a corpus for natural language processing and predict when machines will understand our silly puns. But that means as labor, people want to measure the inputs. The truth is, and I’ve learned this most from, say, writing poetry and from having a partner who’s a visual artist, some grids take thirty minutes to build and some take three years. Like lots of cultural production, the goal is to take it out of the logic of the market, and while it’s still there, to protect the people who make it.

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Camila Valle View All

Camila Valle is an editor, translator, and writer based in New York. She is also an avid crossword solver.