Are some stories inherently bad?

A few weeks ago I watched a certain TV show on Netflix. I won’t say that I hated it, but I definitely didn’t like it. It was the season-ender of a series I normally like very much, and it ended tragically, almost pathetically.

I felt guilty that I didn’t like the sad ending. I am surrounded by people who want all their music to sound “pretty” and all the movies to leave them feeling good, but I was always told that it was superficial to think that way. Some great art, I believe, is meant to disturb us a little. So it felt wrong to say, “I wish that show had had a happier ending.”

I started looking for other reasons to dislike it.

Was the tragedy gratuitous, for example? I don’t like stories in which everything goes wrong at the end but there’s no reason for it to. When someone writes a story and concocts some wild coincidence to make everything turn out OK, it’s usually criticized for employing a deus ex machina. In our day a lot of stories concoct wild coincidences to make everything turn out badly, but for someone reason that’s rarely criticized.

In this particular episode, there was in fact one really unlikely coincidence that made everything go wrong, but apart from that the tragic circumstances were logical for the characters involved. It didn’t feel contrived enough to explain my antipathy.

I finally decided that what I didn’t like about the episode really was just the choice of the story. I think the show would have been stronger with a more upbeat turn of events.

So now I’ve been thinking … is it fair to say that some stories are inherently inferior to others? Even if they are presented with depth and skill?

My brother Dave would say so, I think. He believes that there are seven themes that keep turning up in the best art and literature. They are built into the character of God and the meaning of human existence.

I’m influenced by G. K. Chesterton’s view that even ugly things are beautiful when you look at them the right way. In some sense telling the truth about something makes it beautiful. (Isn’t that part of the point Ender makes in Speaker for the Dead?) Doesn’t that mean that every story is equally beautiful in its own way?

Yes, in a sense, but only if you set it within the right context. Only if you make it part of a bigger story that gives it meaning and beauty.

So when I say that this particular episode didn’t have a good story, I don’t mean that the story couldn’t be made into a thing of beauty by subsuming it within a larger story that gives it meaning. I mean that the story as it stands, without the backdrop against which to interpret it, is inherently inferior to what it could have been.

Does that make sense? I think so.

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