MGWCC #155

 crossword 5:04
puzzle 10 minutes, or 2 days 


quick post today, because i’ve had company from out of town all weekend and i’m way behind on both puzzles and time. this week’s episode of matt gaffney’s weekly crossword contest, “Popular Fiction,” had us searching for a ten-letter book-related word. there were five theme answers, marked with asterisks:

  • {1990s young adult series with titles like “You Can’t Scare Me!” and “Stay Out of the Basement”*} is GOOSEBUMPS by r.l. stine. i haven’t read any of these.
  • {1945 novel made into a 1999 movie*} is STUART LITTLE, by e.b. white. we’ve recently started reading charlotte’s web to our son sam. i’ve read stuart little, but it was decades ago. there’s a mouse, and … a motorcycle?
  • {1975 novel with Harry Houdini as a character*} is e.l. doctorow’s RAGTIME. this was an okay book. it’s a good musical, though. i guess i like rag music. anyway, this was not the 7-letter across answer located in the center of the grid. instead, it was the 7-letter down answer located in the center of the grid, crossing other theme answers at the R and E. i’m not sure why matt did that. what say you—does the elegance of crossing themers outweigh the inelegance of having theme and non-theme answers indistinguishable by length/orientation, thus necessitating the asterisks?
  • {1922 poem that begins “April is the cruellest month”*} is t.s. eliot’s THE WASTE LAND. i’ve read this, too, but most of it went over my head, i think.
  • {1975 novel whose main characters include Rusty-James and the Motorcycle Boy*} is RUMBLE FISH, and it’s the only one of these i didn’t really know. i mean i think i’ve heard of it, but not enough to remember it without 9 of the 10 crossings in place. it’s by s.e. hinton, (much) more famous for her the outsiders.

so the meta was both easy and hard. you’ve probably already noticed that the five authors are all people known by two initials and a last name. toss those initials (RL, EB, EL, TS, SE) into a bag and mix them up, and you can arrive at this ten-letter word: bestseller. that fits the title, so it must be the answer. i’m not sure why it took me two viewings (spaced a couple of days apart) to notice the initials thing. maybe it’s because i was distracted that both white and hinton are represented in the grid by their second-most-famous book, but i think that’s just the constraints of symmetric theme answers. THE OUTSIDERS (12) and CHARLOTTE’S WEB (13) don’t work length-wise.

i like the use of authors with initials—there are certainly enough of them (CS lewis, JK rowling, TH white, AA milne, CP snow, TC boyle, …). but there’s something pretty inelegant/arbitrary about asking us to anagram a very large number of letters. i mean, the anagram took me only a few seconds once i wrote down all the letters, but still, anagramming 10 letters is nontrivial. with no canonical ordering, i think i wouldn’t want to go for more than 5 or 6 letters to anagram. there are 151,200 ways to arrange the letters of RLEBELTSSE, and although only one of them is a word, what are you supposed to do if you can’t immediately see it, and don’t know about things like i, rearrangement servant? i think i would have preferred, instead of asterisks in those clues, some numbers, such as: {1990s young adult series with titles like “You Can’t Scare Me!” and “Stay Out of the Basement” (10, 7)}, and so forth. that’s not exactly elegant, either, but at least once you figure out the theme, it points you directly to the answer.

good fill this week. ERBIUM is one i haven’t seen in a crossword before. SHIATSU is a word i did not know when it was the answer to a question on a written jeopardy! test i took a while back. if only i’d done this crossword before then! MAPLES seemed like an awkward plural; isn’t marla MAPLES pretty famous? overall, though, the cluing was pretty straightforward, and most of the difficulty was actually in the clues for the theme answers, only two of which i could have gotten without crosses (RAGTIME and THE WASTE LAND).

that’s all for me. what’d you guys think?

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24 Responses to MGWCC #155

  1. NDE says:

    Who needs Marla Maples? MAPLES is a fine word when it refers to trees or tree varieties; it becomes awkward only when clued by the “maple leaf” coin.

    I remembered ERBIUM from Carl Sagan’s novel _Contact_, which actually has a chapter called “The Erbium Dowel”! I did *not* remember its atomic number (though I remembered that the number, too, is mentioned in the novel), but it was the only rare-earth element I could remember whose name is as short as six letters (turns out there’s only one other).

    –Noam D. Elkies

  2. *David* says:

    I was a bit surprised with RAGTIME going down the middle but I forgave it due to its centrality. I noticed the initials right away with most of the authors. Five themes and ten letters tells you where to go from there. As far as the anagram, I don’t do that anymore, I let the computer show me the options, so an easy meta all around.

  3. Matt S. says:

    I submitted INITIALISM–sort of book/literary-related, no?

  4. Matt Gaffney says:

    Joon — I didn’t want to pass up the serendipitous chance at connecting the middle theme entries, so put RAGTIME there. Not sure why asking people to anagram 10 letters into a literary term is considered onerous, especially for a week 3?! There’s an entire puzzle type in Dell magazines (“Bowl-A-Word”) that asks people to do just that, and without any hint at all.

    I could see your point and I’d agree if it was, say, 15 or 20 letters, but 10 doesn’t seem like any trouble at all. I don’t think I heard from any solvers who got the 10 letters but couldn’t figure out the anagram.

    Many asked about the process of this theme: I first compiled a list of about 30 authors who go by two initials instead of a first name (there are more than that, but I wanted to use only truly famous authors). Then I went looking for a meta answer. Started with author names, no luck. Then went to book titles, nothing worked there either. Very limited choice of words with this meta, since about 10 of these 30 famous authors have initials that would be difficult to use in a keyword (HH Munro, JK Rowling, GK Chesterton, etc.).

    Went to book-related words next, and was ready to give up when I found BESTSELLER. You can imagine how happy I was to see that it worked, and I triple-checked it right there to make sure I didn’t swap an E for an L or something. Total time it took to come up with the meta word and theme entries was about two hours.

    224 correct entries this week. Shoulda swapped this week and last, difficulty-wise.

  5. Aaron Brandes says:

    This is my fastest ever non-trivial meta solve (< 5 min walking home from the subway after work). I knew that 10 letters didn't have to come 2 each from the theme answers, and at first I couldn't see how to do it. Somehow T.S., led me to other initials. I couldn't remember the author of Rumblefish, but was able to dredge up the author of "That was then, this is now" who fortunately is the same woman. Unscrambling was quick. I'm glad Popular Fiction wasn't something like SADDAMSWMD.

  6. Jason Feng says:

    How hard would the meta have been without the asterisked clues?

  7. Tony says:

    Talk about head-slapper! I sent the answer in at 11:30 today once I concentrated on the authors instead of the works themselves.

    Matt, I love the “Bowl-A-Word” challengers. One of my other favorites is Word Division.

  8. Abby says:

    Jason, I think since all the literary works are clued as literary works, it wouldn’t have been too bad (though I’m glad it was spelled out). If RAGTIME, for example, had been clued in a different way, that wouldn’t be cricket, I think.

    I knew several of the authors’ names, so this came pretty quickly to me. Doing a dozen cryptics per week, anagrams aren’t really a problem- especially to get one long word. Making phrases is harder because more looks like it’ll work. (Less treble? Sell berets?)

  9. Neville says:

    This came nicely not only because of 10/5=2 letters from each entry, but each each entry’s clue lacked the author’s name, making it extremely easy for me.

    Ten letters would be tricky – if there were more than 6 distinct letters, more than one distinct vowel or we didn’t have the literary clue. I think it’s quite kosher for a week 3 puzzle.

  10. Pam says:

    I thought that Matt might try to trip us up with all the hyphens in his explanation of what the answer to this week’s puzzle would be … ten-letter book-related. So I googled “bestseller” and it popped up with 3 versions 1) best seller 2) bestseller and 3) best-seller. So maybe the correct answer would have to be the hyphenated version? Guess not. Or maybe he’ll consider my hyphenated answer wrong?

  11. Matt Gaffney says:


  12. AV says:

    Loved the puzzle (and as usual, did not submit; note to self – hit “send”, especially if you found the meta immediately!)

    Erbium brought back memories from days spent in a lab setting. The fiber optic network that carriers all our internet data (and brings us high-def video, etc.) is interspersed with optical amplifiers that contain erbium-doped fibers. (It is the erbium, the rare-earth element, that amplifies weak signals!). Of course Matt knew that!

  13. Erbium always reminds me of Tom Lehrer’s Elements song ( Fun fact: the 4 elements Erbium, Terbium, Yttrium, and Ytterbium were all named after the city of Ytterby, Sweden.

  14. Karen says:

    I’ll confess that I came up with ‘bestseller’ as a guess, mostly due to the puzzles title. There were once again no forced answers in the grid to point me anywhere. I failed to find common publishers, NYT bestsellers rank, or movie adaptations. Can’t believe I forgot to look at author names.

  15. pannonica says:

    I second everything that Abby wrote, except for ‘cricket’ (wc).

  16. Norm says:

    What Karen said. Ditto here. Felt right, but I had no idea why.

  17. Norm C. says:

    I initially thought of BESTSELLER but thought that was too easy. Never occurred to me that the two letter initials should be combined as an anagram. Since I knew the initials were part of the meta I did a little research and found that many authors, usually female ones, used their initials instead of their full names to mask their gender. SE Hinton is a good example. She was concerned that publishers would ignore her if they knew she was female. Anyways that little factoid led me to send in PSEUDONYMS as my meta answer. It’s 10 letters, a literary term and authors that use their initials fit the definition of a pseudonym. Waddya say Matt?

  18. Amy says:

    I also sent in pseudonyms, and could argue that it should be considered more appropriate than the “correct” answer.

  19. Matt Gaffney says:

    OK but none of the five authors use(d) pseudonyms; those are their actual initials in each case.

  20. Norm C. says:

    According to the article I read the very fact that they used their initials instead of their full names qualifies as a pseudonym. It doesn’t matter if they were they were actual or not.

  21. pannonica says:

    I know it’s a fine point, but even if PSEUDONYMS had support as strong as BESTSELLERS (namely, the 10 anagram letters), I reckon that the wording of the instructions (stating that “the answer is a ten-letter book-related word”) somehow specifies, or at least implies, a singular form. PSEUDONYM is only nine letters. If Gaffney was after that concept, wouldn’t he have simply asked for a nine-letter book-related word?

  22. Evad says:

    @p’a, don’t you mean BESTSELLER in the singular or am I missing your argument?

  23. Amy says:

    Before this contest I would not have viewed these names as pseudonyms, but when the answer occurred to me I surfed different sites and concluded there was enough confusion on the point that I must have the right answer. Pannonica’s point would have never occurred to me, and it wouldn’t be beyond Matt to think of bestseller as a red herring. It doesn’t really matter to me whether it’s considered a right answer or not-but I think it’s the best wrong answer I’ve ever given!

  24. pannonica says:

    Evad: Yes, I mistyped.

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