The Crossword Revolution Is Upon Us

12 minute read

When I ask Erik Agard what he is most proud of doing so far in his position as the editor of the crossword puzzle at USA Today, one of the nation’s highest-circulating papers, he brings up Oreos.

The answer OREO has appeared in major crosswords literally thousands of times, almost always clued with humdrum language like “Twistable treat.” In February, USA Today ran the clue “Cookie that some people eat with mustard,” throwing the Internet into such a frenzy about the little-known practice that the hosts of TODAY did a segment on the clue and tried the recipe. “The after is not great,” said a grimacing Hoda Kotb.

Entertaining as that all was, it is not exactly what I’m expecting Agard to say. There has been mounting protest in the world of crosswords, as there has been in entertainment and politics and every other arena where marginalized groups have felt excluded and disenfranchised. Critics have called out editors of major puzzles for publishing far more puzzles made by men than women, for the “old white guy sensibility” that has long set standards for the industry and for spectacular slips that prove just how real the blind spots are. There have been demands for change. There has been resistance.

Agard, a 26-year-old puzzle phenom who has been in the job about eight months, has done unprecedented work on this score. Patti Varol, a veteran editor and constructor in the close-knit community known as the “crossworld” describes Agard as a “beacon of inclusivity” who is “revolutionizing the way puzzles are edited and vetted and published.” I expect Agard to say something about this, about the way that he has used his position to draw women and people of color and LGBTQ people into the square—and, in the process, turned a once-maligned puzzle into what one prominent blogger called today’s “most interesting, innovative, and provocative daily crossword.”

But the artful deflection is emblematic of Agard’s low-key, fun-yet-serious style. This is, after all, the same person who performed the subtly radical act of answering a Final Jeopardy! question with a meme. And, in a way, the Oreo incident epitomizes what’s so different about his approach. “i feel like a lot of editors do this thing where they’re like, if X% of my audience doesn’t know it, it’s a bad clue,” Agard writes to me through chat, the medium we use to conduct interviews over several days. “my editorial decisionmaking process,” he goes on, “is i do not do that.”

Using the imagined knowledge of some mainstream majority as a litmus test—or walking around the office to survey the people already in the room—risks a bad feedback loop, he says, one ensuring that whatever is already dominant stays dominant and whoever is already sidelined remains so.

Crosswords are not just some nerdy pastime. They are an American art form that, on the daily, send a signal to millions of people about who and what matter, about where we are as a culture. The content of a crossword is one answer to the question “What do you need to know in order to be a person of the world?” as Laura Braunstein, who cofounded a women-centric indie crossword called The Inkubator, puts it. Is it offensive to use the word ESKIMO? Should someone be expected to know the term CISGENDER? Those are calls crossword editors make. (Note: industry style is to write answers in all caps.)

The fact that Agard got the USA Today job is in some ways unremarkable. Since he was a student of African American Studies at the University of Maryland, he has been a known entity among puzzlers. He’s one of the nation’s top constructors and solvers, who in 2018 earned acclaim both as a Jeopardy! champion and the winner of the nation’s premiere crossword puzzle tournament.

But Agard also defies the old mold, wielding the Final Say as a young biracial person. There are, perhaps, ten jobs like his in the country—overseeing puzzles that reach huge audiences every day—and many are filled by white men who have been running the show for more than 20 years.

Some puzzle-makers feel the tastes of gatekeepers are outdated and fear that crosswords won’t find relevance with upcoming generations. Constructor Nate Cardin, founder of Queer Qrosswords, gives the example of “Husband’s spouse” being used to clue the answer WIFE or the fact that an answer like MELOTT is used, again and again, while LIZZO isn’t. “You can have a white baseball player from 70 years ago and people say, ‘That’s great,” Cardin says, “and you can have a very famous person of color currently and a lot of people will say, ‘I don’t know that, so we’re not going to include it.’”

That is not what is happening at USA Today. One example: In the last couple years the word WIFE has been clued in major puzzles as “Marge, to Homer” and “Meghan, to Harry” and “Desdemona, to Othello.” In April, a puzzle edited by Agard ran a novel description involving two prominent soccer players: “Ali Krieger, to Ashlyn Harris,” leading one solver to gleefully tweet, “USA Today Crossword making me feel ALIVE!”

Among the other people who have been brought into the 300 or so puzzles Agard has edited are Muslim comic author Huda Fahmy, Black comedian Nicole Byer, Mexican-American sportscaster Antonietta Collins and astronomer Annie Jump Cannon. Constructors have, meanwhile, complained about other major puzzles rejecting people like Olympic gymnast Simone Biles, Grammy-winning musician-and-actor Janelle Monae and SNL star Aidy Bryant as too trivial or unknown.

American crosswords have long been Eurocentric (YSER, anyone?) as well as male-centric. But while “ethnic” foods like Vietnamese pho have been rejected elsewhere, USA Today is today a global feast of som tam and shumai and tirokafteri. While other editors have refused to run “uncomplimentary” terms like MANSPREADING (despite crosswords long including terms like HAG), USA Today is testing solvers with clues like “Female ___ (film theory concept).” Agard is unafraid to include Internet slang or other things solvers might not be sure how to pronounce. What solvers generally won’t find are obscure crossword-ese that no one really uses, like ESNE or OLEO.

Agard—who had puzzles published in the New York Times, Los Angeles Times and elsewhere by the time he was 19—once had an editor nix the awards show Black Girls Rock because it “might elicit unfavorable responses from readers.” HBCU, an acronym for historically Black colleges and universities, was rejected for being “too obscure.” When I ask how he first realized crosswords had an inclusivity problem, Agard, whose father is from British Guiana, says that seeing the answer MULATTO in a puzzle was a “formative” experience. He also notes that references to Gone With the Wind, which has been criticized as glorifying slavery, are still passing muster.

Stella Zawistowski, a constructor who works with Agard, describes him as the “wokest of the woke.” He insists that most of what he does is just get out of the way and let constructors bring their own voice to the puzzle. In one of Zawistowski’s recent grids, she clued the answer RUN not as “Diamond score” or “Pantyhose woe” but “Compete like Eliud Kipchoge.” As a former marathon runner, she thinks people should be expected to know a Kenyan champion who ran one in under two hours. “No other human being has ever done that,” Zawistowski says. “It’s extraordinary.”

But there are also times when Agard steps in and adds an “Erik clue.” In another puzzle she submitted, Zawistowski included the answer ONT, which has hundreds of times been clued as something like “Canadian prov.” Agard instead wanted to bring in the experiences of transgender people, she says. If and when transgender men seek testosterone hormone therapy, they might describe that regimen as being “on T.”

“That,” Zawistowski says, “kind of distills Erik down to one clue.”

When I describe Agard’s work as “inclusive,” he balks. The descriptor, especially without some sort of modifier, suggests too much that the work is done. “can a puzzle with no black women constructors be called inclusive?” he asks. “there’s not a constructor working today whose grids couldn’t be *more* inclusive … i would apply that to myself as an editor too.”

When I modify to “more inclusive,” this too gets pushback. More inclusive than what? If it’s other mainstream puzzles, “the bar is on the floor.” In general, Agard says, “i don’t think of it like making the puzzle more inclusive so much as i’m doing less to stifle inclusivity or to neglect inclusivity.”

That should not, however, be taken as a suggestion that he is passive about any of this. Among outfits Agard has worn to the big crossword tourney over the year is a T-shirt that said “Publish More Women.” And he has followed his own imperative. According to a tally that puzzle enthusiast Matt Gritzmacher has been keeping, 23% of the puzzles published so far this year by the New York Times have been constructed by women. At the Los Angeles Times, that number is 20%. At USA Today, it is 70%. (Smaller outlets like Inkubator and Women of Letters are, notably, at 100%.)

Part of Agard’s method has been assembling a “closed roster” of constructors and choosing women like Zhouqin Burnikel, Gail Grabowski and Zawistowski to be on it. But he has also spearheaded a Facebook group dedicated to helping new constructors get into the game and actively reached out to women to ask for submissions, as well as spent extra time to turn maybes into yeses.

“I think some editors think all they need to do, or all they can do, is say ‘I want to publish more people from X group’ and have that appear in their inbox,” he writes. Some editors, he notes, won’t even go that far, to which he says: “whew.”

Not everyone is a fan of the scrutiny that is now being applied to grids. In April, there was debate among crossword fanatics on Facebook when NOOSE showed up in a major puzzle. Some found it appalling, given the connotations of lynching and the fact that nooses are still used as a means of terrorizing minorities. Others said that kind of reaction was the problem. “People are overly sensitive about every little word or thing anymore,” one person wrote. “Sheesh!”

David Steinberg, another young phenom and editor of the widely disseminated Universal crossword, recruited Agard to work as his assistant editor before Agard got the USA Today post. (Both puzzles are syndicated by the same parent company.) Steinberg has been working on representation-related projects too and says Agard has had a “huge influence” on him.

He notes Agard’s recent efforts to include references to American Indian culture. (The tribe NEZPERCE, for instance, appeared in a July puzzle that Agard both constructed and edited.) “One really good effect is more people solving the puzzle see themselves in the puzzle,” Steinberg says. “A lot of editors are taking notice of what he’s doing.”

Zawistowski says that devout solvers have taken notice too. Such individuals might do four or five puzzles every day. Asking them to alter which ones they do borders on the religious. The USA Today puzzle, previously regarded as too easy and too boring – not to mention plagued by a plagiarism scandal known as “Gridgate”—was not a popular choice, she says. But since Agard took over, that’s changed. It’s still relatively easy to solve—words are generally short, clues have context that enable good guesses even if something is unfamiliar—but there’s no predicting what will be in it. One solver even started a blog devoted to the puzzle, a type of zealous oversight typically reserved for the likes of the New York Times.

When I asked Agard about his general philosophy toward editing, he says, “i want someone who has never attempted a crossword before to be able to get through it and have fun.” Exposing people to new things “can be a goal” too.

In Zawistowski’s view, this is the crux of things. The fact that the majority of puzzles are made and controlled by the same demographic is not an issue because any particular group has some right to be represented. It’s about the experience. It’s about viewing the crossword as a place to learn something new rather than simply confirm what you already know. “The whole point of a crossword, or any puzzle, is to surprise and delight people,” Zawistowski says, “and there is no surprise and delight when there is too much sameness.” There’s no surprise and delight when it’s all twistable treats. There is plenty when there’s mustard.

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