For a lot of crossword clues there's only one sensible answer. Try
1. Actor whom People magazine erroneously declared dead in 1982.
What are the odds that People magazine would forget to check the vivacity twice, in one year, of actors with names identically long?
But take a look at this harmless 4-letterer:
51. Something to pick.
Three alternatives come to mind: NOSE, BONE, and LOCK. I think it's fair to say all three are valid. I've had a bone to pick, and I've spent hours picking away in doors and nostrils (in what proportion is a question I'll leave to your imagination). So it looks like we could be in trouble...
But we needn't worry -- the beauty of crosswords is that the clues cross! It's hard for the ambiguity to survive because if we, say, initially thought of NOSE, we'll run into trouble with that N and S somewhere down the line (they were looking for BONE). That's what makes solving crosswords so frustrating and fun. One proceeds one "breakthrough" at a time, gaining momentum when all the words seem to fit and losing hope when they don't. It's a game best played in pencil, with patient fluidity in place of stubbornness.
But what if that beautiful buddy system, that criss-crossing driver of self-consistent solutions, failed? What if we found sensible intersecting words for the mistaken N and S in NOSE, and figured out suitable accommodations for those words' wrong letters, etc., until we poisoned the whole puzzle?
Even though our now-twisted NOSE solution would look quite a bit different from the next day's officially sanctioned "Answer to Previous Puzzle," would it be wrong? And if so, how wrong? Sure, it wouldn't be what the author intended, but is that what really matters? Aren't we just looking for playful, patterned relations among words and ideas?
I'm on the fence. It's clear that both solutions jive with the spirit of the thing, but there is The Solution that The Author was looking for, and there has to be something to that, especially if it's the one most people submitted. Or maybe there's something special about an unlikely alternative. After all, isn't that what puzzles are for: testing one's wits and creativity?
I don't know. But pretend that all along we were talking about a novel and its competing interpretations. Now what do you think?