In the online New Yorker, the most challenging crosswords run on Mondays. The puzzle for May 23—a toughie—includes clues on a dizzying variety of topics: “The Simpsons,” NCAA sports, the Light Brigade, biochemistry, Greek drama, lingerie, geography, pop music, the Wild West, cocktails, the films of Cate Blanchett and Kristen Stewart, and the fashions of Swinging London.
And that’s just for starters.
34 Across: Like science fiction concerning the ethics of artificial intelligence
46 Down: “___, Épaules, Genoux, et Pieds” (classic children’s song, in French)
The author of this cruciverbalist’s feast is Anna Shechtman, a postdoctoral fellow and future faculty member on the Hill. (She’ll become an assistant professor in the Department of Literatures in English in fall 2024.)
A star in the crossword world, Shechtman has gained fame not only for the élan and cleverness of her creations, but because—as a woman now in her early 30s—she brings a fresh voice to a field that has traditionally been dominated by older, male constructors.
Shechtman was just 19 and an undergrad at Swarthmore when she published her first puzzle in the New York Times in May 2010. (As the paper’s “Wordplay” column predicted, Shechtman “has a bright future if she keeps up this level of creativity.”)
That led to a coveted gig as the assistant to Will Shortz, the Times’ legendary puzzle editor. As hardcore fans know, after constructors submit their puzzles, Shortz rewrites as many as 90% of the clues—and part of Shechtman’s job was to help him.
“Sometimes, that was, ‘Who can come up with the most clever wordplay?’—the clue that makes you think of all the different usages before you realize you’ve been misdirected,” she recalls.
“Other times we’d debate usage: ‘Is the way I understand this word—growing up as a Millennial in Lower Manhattan—the same way he understands it as a Boomer who grew up on a horse farm in Indiana?’ All aspects of our cultural history would be brought to bear on these questions about lexicon.”
Shechtman left the job to attend grad school at Yale, where she earned a doctorate in English literature and film and media studies. She came to Cornell in fall 2021 as a Klarman Fellow—part of a program in Arts & Sciences that brings outstanding postdoctoral scholars to the Hill for up to three years of funded research, with no teaching obligations.
She’s currently at work on two books, one of them academic: an expansion of her dissertation that explores the evolution of the concept of “media.” The other is a history of crossword puzzles, with a focus on gender issues. Titled The Riddles of the Sphinx, it’s slated to be published by HarperCollins in 2024.
“In the first half of the 20th century, the majority of crossword constructors were women—and now, it’s around 20%,” she notes. “Why did that happen? What does it say about ‘women’s work’—and about changes in the status of crossword puzzles and how they’re made?”
As she’ll describe in the book—each section of which will open with a new Shechtman puzzle—when crosswords debuted more than a century ago, they sparked a craze that swept the nation. And akin to future fears about the deleterious effects of movies, TV, and social media, crosswords were seen in some quarters as a societal evil.
“People were saying not just that they were a distraction that siphons your intellectual energy, but also, in a weird way, your erotic energy,” she observes.
“It was taking away from the family unit. ‘Wives are not tending to their husbands anymore, because they’re busy doing crossword puzzles.’ There was a spate of divorces—and because there was no ‘no-fault’ divorce, the ‘fault’ was crosswords.”
In a personal essay in the New Yorker published in December 2021, Shechtman unpacked the role that crosswords played in her own youth. As she struggled with an eating disorder that ultimately led to residential treatment, constructing them—starting at age 14—became both an outlet and a fixation.
“I would write them in moments of intense body dysmorphia,” she recalls. “My self esteem was quite low, and they gave me a real sense of pride and accomplishment. But they also use your brain in such a way that you almost forget you’re in your body—and I found that to be a relief.”
Even after Shechtman started publishing her puzzles, she still made them old-school—by hand, using graph paper. She eventually joined most of her peers in adopting purpose-built software, which vastly speeds the process.
“There’s still a lot of authorship and innovation involved,” she says. “But it’s a whole different project.”
She was among the founders of the current incarnation of the New Yorker crossword, a now-weekday feature the magazine’s website launched in 2018, and she remains a regular contributor.
Unlike in the Times, the New Yorker puzzles are lightly edited—though heavily fact-checked—so its constructors’ individual voices shine through.
What distinguishes a Shechtman?
“Every puzzle is an index of its maker’s preoccupations and interests,” she observes. “I’ve been told that my puzzles have a lot of pop cultural references and also a lot of academic references, which is not surprising.”
Shechtman recalls that when she worked for Shortz, the two would often debate whether a clue was “crossword worthy.”
Was it not only trivia—which is, after all, intrinsic to knowledge games—but downright trivial, and undeserving of inclusion in a Times puzzle?
Was it something a typical solver would know? And who was a typical solver, anyway?
“We got into conversations—always very amicable—about ‘What is puzzle work?’” she says, “which were anything but trivial.”
Top image: Illustration by Cornell University from a provided photo