Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

Quit yer grade grubbing!

I am addicted to my reader comments. Whenever a story gets posted online, it's like that part in every show-biz movie from the 1930s where the cast gathers round the newspapers and reads aloud the reviews of the big show. (Except instead of reading the newspapers, it's clicking the refresh button on my web browser every five minutes.) Sometimes it's "Boffo!", other times it's "Boo! Hiss!", but it's never just one or the other. Which is great. As a person who reviews other people's work for a living, it's valuable to learn that no matter what you do or how much care you take with your work, some people will love you and others will hate your guts, and their reaction ultimately has nothing to do with you.

As much as I love reading the comments, there is one kind of commenter that sort of gets on my nerves–the grade grubber. These are the people who will fixate on the letter grade at the end of the review and complain that whatever you're reviewing deserves an A-, not a B+, or that your grade does not accurately reflect the review, which is really too kind to "just" be a B. Here's a little secret: Any grade put on an album or movie by us or any other pop culture publication or website means next to nothing. Maybe not absolutely nothing–it's easy to tell the difference between an A work and a C work. But I still only have a fuzzy grasp of the nuances. What does it really mean to give something an A- vs. a B+? It's not like you can give a test to a record or film, with definitive questions and answers and a handy percentage scale. Even if there were such a test, what about critics that use the star system, with some preferring four stars and other, slightly more indulgent critics favoring five stars? Is there a conversion chart for them? What about critics that replace stars with tiny megaphones, or those that turn their right thumb up or down, a simple pass/fail scale? How can we ensure grade integrity across different systems?

As a reader, I understand putting grades on reviews. As much as I adore my own prose, I know most people will scan it in about two seconds and consult the grade as a quick answer to the important question: "Should I pay for this or not?" But as a writer and lover of reading criticism, I hate grades. They reduce all the thought you put into trying to figure out what something is trying to do and how well it achieves it into another glib, meaningless way to keep score. Now that sites like Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes–which I often look at and enjoy in a lot of ways–have taken those meaningless scores from every major publication and compiled them into big, monster scores, critical consensus has been quantified like box office returns. Somehow the actual stuff being reviewed gets lost in the shuffle.

At the risk of sounding like one of those high-falutin' pantywaists, it's the ideas in a review and the discussion they generate that matter, not some arbitrary letter or number score you pluck out of thin air. I love Robert Christgau's pithy reviews from his Consumer Guides, but it's the insights and one-liners I remember, not the grades. Which is why I get frustrated when readers fixate on the score in our reviews–come on, is this really all we have to talk about? If you think The A.V. Club is off-base with a review, state your case, don't just express your utter shock–shock!–that so-called intelligent people could dare think an obvious C-minus movie is actually worthy of a B-minus. Otherwise you and your comments clearly deserve an F.

What do you guys think–am I wrong? I admit I'm guilty of perpetrating my own pet peeve at times, so my glass house is less than secure here. Do you guys read reviews, or do you tend to scan and glance at the grade? And what do these grades mean to you, anyway?