During the early 1990’s when I was trying to find a literary agent for my second book, The Other Pilot, I bought a copy of Literary Marketplace. Using the new internet, I found many of the agents had web sites. Several stated that they didn’t consider schadenfreude. I had never heard that word before, so I looked it up. It means “just deserts,” or enjoying the pain of others. I didn’t understand why agents would bother distancing themselves from it. Now, in the full measure of time, it’s clearer. Schadenfreude is at the core of the commercial literary marketplace. Virtually all genre fiction depends on schadenfreude as a plot tool to generate emotion. Let’s have a look.
Thrillers depend more on villains than they do heroes. It’s easy to craft a good guy, much harder to create a creditable villain. The easy way is to paint a vague picture of the villain and then spend effort on the cruel evil deeds he/she does and the suffering they cause. Then, at the end, you roast your villain in a fire or flay them with rusty knives; payback is a bitch. That’s schadenfreude.
Romance novels need villains too, though their evil deeds are interpersonal rather than violent or lethal. Still, the twist at the end involves someone getting what they deserve while the heroine rides off with the handsome prince; schadenfreude.
Detective novels, police procedurals, war; all schadenfreude.
Literary fiction does not, usually, involve this plot device. Thus, those agents excluding schadenfreude from submission were excluding genre fiction. They were limiting their agency to non-fiction, which is a much steadier source of income for agents than fiction, and literary fiction, which is notoriously risky for agent and publisher. But, literary fiction is where the fun is, and agents are usually English majors and fancy that they will discover, nurture and bring to market the next Hemingway. They don’t want to be bothered by cheap tricks.
Unwittingly, in my novel Bookman, I used schadenfreude in an unusual way. I made Phil, the protagonist, into a complete jerk, and piled misdeeds and mistakes on him like a Judas goat. He did everything wrong, then when he got his face busted by a sadistic Memphis policeman, the reader felt a certain satisfaction, and Phil could repent and become a sympathetic character. Writing the misdeeds was fun. Bookman is literary fiction. Gone with the Wind is considered literary fiction, or Southern fiction. Recall that Rhett finally leaves Scarlett, and all the female readers sigh, “she had it coming.” Literary agents would love to have a piece of that schadenfreude.