Critics have pointed out that crossword puzzles in mainstream publications often use narrow, outdated and sometimes even offensive language. For example, as recently as last year The New York Times crossword still featured the word “Eskimo” as an answer, even though the rest of the papers had almost completely shelved the term as potentially offensive. Laura Braunstein and Tracy Bennett are identifying that this kind of antiquated filter also excludes female voices. Braunstein is a crossword constructor and librarian at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire, and Bennett is a managing copy editor for Mathematical Reviews/MathSciNet in Ann Arbor, Michigan, whose crossword puzzles appear as a feature called “X-Games” in Bust magazine. On Sunday, the two women launched a Kickstarter for Inkubator, which will be a twice-monthly subscription service that will publish crosswords constructed by “cis women, trans women, and woman-aligned constructors.” The project aims to pay constructors a rate comparable to mainstream publishers using crowdsourced funding. I spoke with Braunstein about the project and why she thinks that featuring a range of voices is intrinsic to what’s valuable about crosswords in the first place. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Hailey Gavin: Why did you decide to create Inkubator?
Laura Braunstein: There’s no major newspaper at this point whose editor-in-chief of a crossword is a woman, and many freelancers and constructors tend to be men as well. The New York Times, for instance: Around 13 percent of their constructors in 2017 were women. Tracy and I thought we really wanted to do something where we can pay our constructors a comparable wage to the New York Times or the Wall Street Journal, and we figured the best way to do this would be to start with a Kickstarter, to crowdfund and to get a subscriber base, and the idea is that we will move forward after this year with a subscription service like a lot of these other indie puzzles.
Why are a lot of mainstream crosswords so behind on both featuring female constructors and featuring more voices in general?
If you have a country where the mainstream culture is biased and sexist and rewards a certain point of view, you’re going to see that in the culture that people turn to. I don’t think it’s on purpose. I think everyone is very well-meaning. There’s a big question: do you strike out on your own and make your own independent thing? Or do you try to get accepted by the mainstream? And for now, we’re like, let’s go indie. We’ll have control, we’ll say that there’s an underrepresented group. When you have diversity conversations, it’s not about bringing people in to be diverse, but making the place where they’re going to be a place where they want to be.
How have these kinds of biases affected you personally?
I’ve only been constructing for the last couple of years, and for the most part I’ve been constructing for people who deliberately want less mainstream material. I have had a couple crosswords in the New York Times, and some of the feedback that editors gave was that some of the terms were sort of obscure or referred to movies they’d never heard of. My personal feeling is that I like to learn everything, and if I see something I’m not familiar with that’s a great opportunity to learn. I’m a librarian professionally, so what I’m paid to do is learn about things that I don’t know about and help people learn, but I think a lot of people want something that pleases them and not something that challenges them. I think that you see people that get angry if they see something in the crossword that they haven’t heard of, and that disappoints me. I feel sad that those people can’t take joy in learning from something.
What kind of language specifically do mainstream crosswords often exclude?
Let me give you an example. The term G-spot has appeared in the New York Times a bunch of times, and its always clued as “Pressure point” or something like that. But then if you have the term pap smear, even though it has to do with the same parts of the body, there’s a sort of squeamishness. There’s something a lot of editors call “the breakfast test,” which is if you think it’s going to make people feel squeamish at breakfast when they might be solving the puzzle, then you don’t want it in the puzzle. I personally think that things having to do with the body, particularly the female body, shouldn’t have to be so squeamish. That’s something that our society needs to be a little more frank about. Not everybody feels that way. I think Inkubator is going to give us an opportunity to talk about women’s lives in ways that they haven’t been talked about in other puzzles.
So the mainstream crossword style restricts both which topics can be talked about and who’s lives we talk about?
Right. I think a really interesting thing happens sometimes, with hip-hop culture for example. Linguistically, a lot of the names that hip-hop artists have chosen for themselves are really interesting, and they use letters in interesting ways. So they sometimes will end up in crossword grids because we’re always looking for interesting combinations of letters, like Cardi B. for instance. Huge star, the kind of person where if you just follow the headlines you know who she is. But then you get people saying “I can’t be expected to know all these rappers.” So you have kind of this unconscious bias against black culture showing up in the puzzle because one of the ways it shows up is through the names of these artists. And it happens with foods. People say “Well, I’ve never had pork adobo,” and you want to say well, you should! It’s delicious. If this is a pluralistic culture and people are threatening that, could the puzzle be a place where we fight back? Could the puzzle be a place of resistance?
If there is this pluralistic variety of terms that come across differently for different people, does this make it hard to designate the difficulty level of a puzzle?
Yes, but there’s ways to clue things. Like Cardi B. just showed up in a puzzle and the puzzle makers clued her as something like “Artist with number one hit Bodak Yellow,” which is something where you don’t have to know much. So many times there’s something about someone who was on the Dodgers in 1956 or like a tertiary character from an opera, so why shouldn’t everything be included? I don’t know which Greek philosopher said—wait, I’m going to look it up because I’m a librarian—yes, Terence said, “I am human, and I think nothing human is alien to me.” I really feel the same way, and think that’s really how we should feel about what goes into the crosswords. It’s an opportunity to learn.
Which past projects have inspired you?
Tracy’s work had always inspired me before I became a constructor, but there are two major projects this past year. One is called Queer Qrosswords, and then another project called Women of Letters. And they really did similar things to what we’re doing. Those were both made through charities, so for example you donate $25 to the Trevor Project and then you get puzzles from Queer Qrosswords. Tracy and I both worked on both of those, and we donated our time but we wanted a project where we could pay people.
How are you funding Inkubator and how is that going?
I released a Kickstarter on Sunday at noon, and we were pretty much funded by midnight. The goal was $10,000 and we’re at about $13,000 and we have 28 days to go. I don’t think Tracy and I could’ve done this had we not already known a lot of people in the field, and we’ve had some people really gunning for the project which is great. What we’re really hoping is to turn that into publicity for constructors who might not know a lot of people. We want to pass on the generosity that we’ve gotten. And we’re also hoping that through this we can develop the beginnings of a subscriber base. So for 2019, the people who will get the puzzles are the people who’ve backed us, and then for 2020 if all goes well we’ll continue with a subscription service.
Why are crosswords important?
It’s a way of looking at language and thinking about what words mean and thinking about how to make words do things in different ways that people enjoy. There’s a real sense of fun, but also I think, in taking language very seriously and understanding the power of language—how it can hurt people, how it can promote ideas that we care about. If somebody was thinking about trying to get into crosswords I’d say, buy a book of crosswords and think about the way the constructor is doing in things in a dialogue with you. The constructor is in a dialogue with the solver, and you’re there trying to create something, a connection that’s based on a sheer understanding of how language works or the potentials of language. I’m always surprised and always pleased by what people can do.
What makes a good crossword puzzle?
Finding something that will cause your solver to be challenged in just the right way. Finding clues that are fun and delightful but also might help you learn something. A crossword is good if you can solve a puzzle and really feel like wow, this constructor is talking about something that I understand, but maybe there’s something I didn’t know so I’m happy to learn that too.
Correction, Oct. 23, 2018: This piece originally misspelled Alex Briñas’ last name.