Just like all the events in the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, everything that follows actually happened.
I was new in the field, a blushing flower, you understand—all his hustle and bustle, very confusing to me. I had spent millions of relative years considering how it would be to be courted, if I may use such a … well … forceful term. But who was I to imagine that I, but a modest, shy, humble newcomer to the great field of journalism, would be noticed by such a prominent media campaign?
I’m turning red as I write this, of course. I hope you won’t think me forward, or full of myself, if I tell you I had hoped eventually for some media suitor to solicit my interest in their product. What can I say? I just wanted to be noticed. I never imagined how it would feel to be discovered by such a wealthy and powerful book series. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
“Jason!” said Frannie Jackson, books editor. “Our usual reporter is sick! The Fifty Shades Darker movie is coming out this Friday, and the PR people at Amazon Books sent me marketing material! Can you step in and write this Darker news item for me?”
I smoothed my slacks as I thought of all the memes I’d miss on Facebook, but, bashful as I am, I was determined to persevere. “Yes, Ms. Jackson, I am for real,” I said, meekly, determined to disappear into the wallpaper like a drunken car thief melting back into a crowd of fellow Patriots fans. “But what will I write about?”
Frannie gave me a “Child, please” look. Then, in this conversation which really took place and I did not make up, she gave me an incredible piece of wisdom which I certainly did not copy and paste, at all, from the original Fifty Shades of Grey:
“Men aren’t really complicated, Ana, honey—”
—by “Men,” she was referring to book marketers, and by “Ana,” she was referring to me, Jason Rhode—
“They are very simple, literal creatures. They usually mean what they say. And we spend hours trying to analyze what they’ve said—when really it’s obvious. If I were you, I’d take him literally. That might help.”
As an innocent, inexperienced ingénue, who also happened to be a dude, I already took everything literally, so that was a great boon and comfort to me.
“Why,” I said, “does an erotic romance novel that sold literally 125 million copies and inspired a movie need a promotion from me?” But there was no response.
Before I knew it, I was reading the promotional material sent to the Paste email account by Amazon. Featured prominently were the “Kindle Popular Highlights,” sentences that most Kindle readers highlighted, which pointed to the ubiquity of bad taste or whatever.
Like the operating manual for drone strikes, E.L. James’ novel was clearly a world-changing piece of prose. I was still taken aback by the frankness of the proposal. I decided to plow ahead, and considered the profound sentences below. There were ten of these highlights from “Darker”:
I read the first selection:
“I love you, Anastasia. I will do everything in my power to protect you. I cannot imagine my life without you.”
I was immediately compelled by how young the writing seemed; I had been expecting something older and more professional, to be honest. Was this the prose that had sold in the millions? It wasn’t what I expected. I blushed—my usual frailty—and decided to persevere with this feature.
“Mr. Fifty Shades Darker Kindle Popular Highlights,” I said, “I don’t know you that well. I’d like to keep this on a professional level.”
Mr. Highlights was not deterred. The second sentence on the list told me what its goal was: “No, I’m doing this because I’ve finally met someone I want to spend the rest of my life with.”
What do you say to something like that? I might have been a naïf—this might not be my usual gig—but I would keep it pro. Yes, I would. “Do you feel that Fifty Shades Darker: The Movie will bring the same kind of Dickensian verve to the screen that it demonstrated on the page?”
The third sentence on the ten-sentence list replied:
“Anastasia Steele. I love you. I want to love, cherish, and protect you for the rest of my life. Be mine. Always. Share my life with me. Marry me.”
“My name isn’t Anastasia!” I protested. But it was half-hearted. I had the feeling that the Mr. Fifty Shades Darker Kindle Popular Highlights was definitely showing a kind of coy interest in me as an agent of the press. Beyond those silky, peerless clusters of words haphazardly stapled together, I could discern a master craftsman at work.
“You are so precious to me, Ana,” read the fourth sentence on the Kindle Popular Highlights list. It continued:
“I was serious about marrying you. We can get to know each other then. I can look after you. You can look after me. We can have kids if you want. I will lay my world at your feet, Anastasia. I want you, body and soul, forever. Please think about it.”
Okay. Well, Mr. Fifty Shades Darker Kindle Popular Highlights had thrown out the rule book. Kids? World at my feet? I was a professional journalist—could I really give up my career to be in a relationship with a list of Kindle Popular Highlights? It flew in the face of everything I knew about good writing—about prose—about the ethos of the press—but on the list went:
“But I’m a selfish man. I’ve wanted you since you fell into my office. You are exquisite, honest, warm, strong, witty, beguilingly innocent; the list is endless. I’m in awe of you. I want you, and the thought of anyone else having you is like a knife twisting in my dark soul.”
That was the fifth sentence! It was a list of staggering adjectives which had taken the native genius of the thesaurus and applied it to the exquisite, honest, warm, beguilingly ancient arts of seduction. But the “knife twisting in my dark soul” bit bugged me. After all, this was not part of the unspoken contract which exists between the press and sources. Perhaps a safe word in that direction was needed.
“Aren’t you worried about cliché?” I asked. “I mean, if people enjoy themselves and it adds to the personal romantic lives of its readers, so much the better. That’s not for me to judge. However, one of the big critiques of this series is that it takes a viable expression of human sexuality—BDSM—and trivializes it as a pathology to be overcome, all for the furtive thrills of its audience.”
Here is how the sixth sentence responded:
“Appearances can be deceptive,” he says quietly. “I’m anything but fine. I feel like the sun has set and not risen for five days, Ana. I’m in perpetual night here.”
“And I’m in perpetual night here too,” I said, “from these Fifty Shades of ‘Nay’ I’m getting to my questions.” I hoped the pun would defuse the situation, but no, it seemed not to turn aside this determined suitor at all. We had entered into a game of cat-and-mouse, where there was punishment and confusing rules I didn’t quite understand.
“You love me,” I whisper. His eyes widen further and his mouth opens. He takes a huge breath, as if winded. He looks tortured-vulnerable. “Yes,” he whispers. “I do.”
“Now you’re just putting words into my mouth,” I giggled. The next sentence got odd:
What? “Uh, no.”
“Marry me,” he whispers. What? Did he really just-
I had been merely fifty shades of curious; now I was fifty shades of furious.
“I’m not sure what I’m even doing here. The book has been published for years, years the Earth and the reading public will never get back. We all now live in the world that Fifty Shades of Gray has made, where we have a President who punishes us daily. The social contract has been rewritten; it’s now more in line with what Anastasia and Christian practice, except with all the fun parts gone! And now there’s another sequel to this movie? Why are you sending us these quotes, Amazon? What do you hope to achieve with this? Are you trying to remind us this book was ever published? I assure you, nobody will ever forget it, much as we might want to, Independent of their context, these lines stand revealed as vague banalities! My God, what was the point of all of this? Answer me! What is it with these overwrought, strange passages? What are you trying to accomplish here?”
“I lay awake for hours and watched you sleep,” he murmurs. “I might have loved you even then.”
Watching me sleep? As you might imagine, this blew my mind out the door of the universe, and I can only now, in the smoldering aftermath of what I once called a “self,” recollect how I was before I encountered these hot takes.
What was my life like before I read Fifty Shades Darker Kindle Popular Highlights? Much better, I assure you. If this is the future of book journalism—appending a fad book as the limb to a multi-platform cross-media campaign to back a movie sequel—then bring on sleep.