Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald

Independent Student Newspaper Since 1969

The Badger Herald


Ratings mask words’ power

For a competent critic, the review is one of the easiest
things to write. The critic experiences the work (album, movie, whatever),
develops an impression, digests the impression and expresses this impression.
This might be considered the youth of a review (though the review’s entire life
is confined to this youth). Throughout this stage, the writer is a faceless
actor, a booming voice without a mouth. That vague sense of anonymity should
ensure an effective review, one whose consumption by the reader impregnates
within them genuine interest, excitement, any sort of reaction — arrived at by
the strength of the writer’s thoughts on the work. But a dooming agent lurks
always, ensuring the review’s failure: It is the impersonal measure of
evaluation, most relevantly as the “insert symbol here” rating.

The rating is simple, succinct and highly seductive in an
age in which readers prefer efficiency in critical writings to exhaustive,
intoxicating evaluations. There are commonly two forms in which it is put to
use: the review that arrives at a rating and the review that explains a rating.
In either case, the rating exists with all the inevitability of death. When
preceding a review, the rating whispers to the reader a rudimentary, hastily
considered SparkNotes of
the review-to-be. This alignment is an a priori melodrama; the review that follows
the rating is obligated to collaborate without complaint. The review which
gives way to a rating is a spoiled story: No reader can be trusted to ignore
the rating until reading the entire review, nor can they be expected to.

The writer’s thoughts on the work are that which the reader
responds to. Understanding this architecture, it’s certain the “insert symbol
here” rating leads to an essential shift in the reader’s approach to a review.
Upon disengaging from the review, the question birthed in the reader becomes
not “Should I check it out?” but instead something resembling “Can I trust this
review?,” “Was that rating appropriate considering what I read?” or “Should I
instead check out something more highly rated?” There is a fracture of the
writer’s word, one that heals improperly in the mind of the reader.


The consequences of a review are ideally the product of the
writer’s words, so the clarity of the writer’s ideas is paramount. The rating
is an obscuring agent, a distraction in an unconvincing Groucho Marx disguise;
it is a quiet distortion of the writer’s thoughts, not unlike the shift of
meaning in statements relayed by an unreliable messenger.

The rating hijacks the spotlight from the writer’s writing
and instead tilts focus on a simple, hardly informative symbol of evaluation.
There would be nothing problematic about this if the review meant to be a wordy
yet faithful running mate rather than the star attraction. It would certainly
be easier for a critic to treat the rating with care and regard the written
review as an afterthought, but that’s unfortunately not in my (somewhat
self-imagined) job description. Look to the popular, where
words aren’t even necessary — anyone can submit a hollow numeric assessment of
an album for consideration.

At best, the review serves as an ignorable specter for the
reader, and at worst — but probably most commonly — it negates the review
entirely. In its presence, the review develops a split personality, a tension
between the words of the writer and the writer’s highly ambiguous overall
evaluation. A curious truth of this “disorder” is that it is self-inflicted: The
writers bring it upon themselves by including the rating at all. In forcing the
reader to consider two focal points, each supposedly manifesting the writer’s
thoughts, the writer is self-vulgarizing. The words take on a gristly, unpleasant
texture, whether the best bite came at the beginning of the dish or at its end.
This phenomenon isn’t necessarily a conscious one, which is perhaps its most
dangerous quality: By attaching such a crude manifestation of their words, the
writers invite the reader to receive their thoughts half-considerately. In
turn, the reader unconsciously equates the reading of the review with the
performance of a task. For most, this is akin to seeing a movie for the first
time despite knowing how it will end, while sexier ways of spending one’s time
lingers just beyond the theater’s exit.

I’m all too aware of the reality that most will find this to
be pretty insignificant. In a way, this is but a catharsis for a writer as
guilty as any of contributing to a real and dangerous trend in criticism — a
confession with a marginally cooperative confessor. But an unconscious
devaluation of the critical word is undeniably afoot. The readers who disregard
ratings the next time they approach a review will find something worth thinking
about other than what we’re trying so hard to escape — grades.

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