How Do You Destroy A Man? Or; The Difference Between Literary Fiction and Genre Fiction


You better kill me afterwards, because if you don’t… I’m coming for you.

Some days ago, I posed a simple question to friends on Facebook (unlike other people, I don’t use Facebook for playing games and other tom foolery; I actually use it as it was intended in the beginning, as a communication medium!)

I asked them, “How do you destroy a man without killing him?” Their answers were intriguing and insightful.

The response was:

“Take away everything that he loves and leave him without hope.”

And that was the correct answer. However… After you’ve taken everything away from him, YOU HAD BETTER KILL HIM.

Because if you’ve done those things, and you haven’t killed him… if he gets up, he’s going to be unstoppable.

Why? Because he now has NOTHING LEFT TO LOSE EXCEPT HIS LIFE. There is nothing else left you can deprive him of, and he will spend every waking moment of his existence ensuring that yours is a living hell.

A man without consequences is the most dangerous animal on Earth.

I suppose you’re wondering how this all ties in. I’ve spent a great deal of time studying not just fiction, but also analyzing and figuring out why I like the fiction that I do. Generally, I’m not a fan of most genre fiction, and I discovered why.

Genre fiction seeks to entertain, while literary fiction begins with a question, not unlike the one that I asked there. I believe that all literary fiction is grounded in philosophy, grounded in the idea of the author, the writer asking themselves a simple question. Literary fiction is the attempt to answer that question.


Although we joke about it, this is a surprisingly complex question with no real definitive answer, if you’re looking past the obvious expected one.

No matter who you are, where you come from, the color of your skin, your social status, or your upbringing, we all have two things in common:

  1. We’re all trapped on this rock called Earth.
  2. Every single one of us will eventually die.

We all seek answers to why we’re here, and what’s our purpose. We try to discover why those two bullet points up there is the way that it is. We attempt to find pattern and order in all things (and sometimes we’ll go looking for patterns that aren’t even there), and we want to figure out how we “FIT.” We want to know the WHY.

Literary authors slowly, but surely, try to explore that space. They ask the questions, the hard ones that have no rock solid answer. Why do we perceive time the way that we do? What are ethics? How do you destroy a man? Are there real consequences for our actions? What’s the difference between justice and revenge?

It all starts with a question, and some attempt to find the elusive answer. I want you to take a look at what you’ve written, and ask yourself, “Have I asked a real question, and am I attempting to answer it?” A literary author is a philosopher of the human condition.

If not… you need to be asking yourself whether or not you’re writing genre fiction or literary fiction, and if that was the intent of your work.


P.S. Before you ask, “What was the question of The Twisted World?”, I have an answer for that. I asked myself:

“How can you take a man who doesn’t care about anything at all, and make him care?”


    1. I think another aspect of this conversation, and perhaps to expand upon, is if you take everything away from a man, and he does come after you for revenge, it’s a statement on the kind of person he is/was/will become in HOW he comes after you. How deeply does he attack you? Does he outright kill you, torture you and make you suffer, or hide in the shadows for years chipping away at you unknowingly…

  1. I think too, that we often see this in a “genre” setting because it’s usually the story of the “over the top all or nothing approach” that is told. What about the stories of the man that doesn’t have revenge IN him? What does he do if he doesn’t seek justice? Is that even an interesting story eventually?

    Also, we see stories everywhere of “what would a man do if you took everything from him and gave him nothing to live for?” but very rarely, do we explore that question from a woman’s perspective. What would a woman do if you, say, killed her husband and child in front of her, assaulted HER, and then left her alive. What kind of woman is she? What would she do to avenge, if anything? Does she have that in her character?

  2. If you didn’t want “miserable pile of secrets,” well, too bad. You’re getting it.


    And now you’re replaying the intro level in your head.

  3. Sometimes one begins with a question, sometimes with a quest. When I write it is normally to discover what the impulse is that is causing me to write, and I suppose injustice is my main concern.

    In the case of my novel my question was, what does a man do who loses everything? with the corollary being that he has no one to blame but himself. He comes to terms with the injustices he wrought on others, and learns something about nobility and truth.

    But the titular question of your post would seem to be the question of a genre novel, or a movie, and I don’t find it very interesting.

    1. I’m not sure I agree with you. I find it to be a VERY interesting question, merely because of all the possibilities that come with it. What I think you are saying here, however, is that it’s a question that gets very frequently used in genre fiction, and that I agree with.

      We should possibly be asking why it’s used so frequently. I reckon because it’s a very open ended and easy to answer set-up (there are so many different plot solutions for it, few of which are wrong).

  4. Gene Wolfe (esp. Book of the New Sun, but also Book of the Long Sun) is a genre novelist by all appearances – his works being set in a decidedly futuristic, post-apocalyptic dying earth (“Urth”), complete with aliens. But he’s far more a philosopher of the human condition than most any writer after Dostoyevsky, and far more so than many held up as exemplars, such as James Joyce, Thomas Pynchon, and David Foster Wallace. (I hold “Infinite Jest” to be an exception and an excellent work.) Even more, the Book of the New Sun is a monomyth of such purity that one could imagine it was written with the academic definition of “monomyth” in mind – and yet it can do so much with such a formulaic formula [sic].

    The academic divide between “literary” and “genre” is pretty useless in the end, because of the utter subjectivity involved in dividing: where does one end and the other begin? Does the low end of “literary” overlap with “genre”? Most certainly the high end of “genre” doth overlap “literary”, and exceeds most any “literary” in terms of insight in to the human condition, learnedness, and artistry, if one is to count Gene Wolfe’s writings as genre.

    There is good fiction, which can exist in any genre (“Harry Potter” [!], “Anathem”, “Book of the New Sun”) or none (“Gravity’s Rainbow”, “Cat’s Eye”, “Brothers Karamazov), which deals with the issues associated with high literature. Then there is escapist fiction, which can be technically very well-written, but is designed mainly for entertainment (Brandon Sanderson), but at the high end can shade off in to dealing with philosophical issues (John Le Carre’s spy fiction as opposed to other spy fiction, “Sword of Truth” [Ayn Randroid fantasy fiction]), and then there’s just plain bad fiction (“Fifty Shades”).

    Although my focus on the author’s intent is unfashionable, we should take it in to account in this way: the more the author intended to say something, the more likely it is to be “good fiction”; and this division, between “serious fiction” and “escapist [or entertainment] fiction” seems to be a much more useful division – if one is needed at all – than “literary” v. “genre”, as serious fiction – that is, “literary” – can be written in any of all of what would be traditionally considered “genre” – and escapist fiction can be written in a perfect “slice of life” or otherwise artistic manner, without content.

    The focus on “genre” v. “literary” focuses on form more than content: this is a great flaw.

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