If you’re looking for proof that the line between pleasure and pain can be a thin one, here is some additional evidence: There’s going to be another Fifty Shades of Grey book. It will be titled, simply, Grey, and it will be published in paperback and as an eBook by Vintage Books later this month. E.L. James, author of the Fifty Shades trilogy, broke the news of Grey’s imminent release on social media Monday morning. As she did so, she made clear to note that the book will be told from the point of view of the series’ protagonist—who is also, of course, the guy who has also doubled as the series’ villain: Christian Grey.
“Christian is a complex character, and readers have always been fascinated by his desires and motivations and his troubled past,” James explained. She added: “This book is dedicated to those readers who asked … and asked ... and asked ... and asked for this.”
The book will be released on June 18. Which is, the press release is happy to point out, Christian Grey's birthday.
If that all seems pretty craven, that's because it is. Grey, on the one hand, represents the reboot industrial complex at its logical extreme: Fifty Shades of Grey was inspired by a hugely successful book that begat more hugely successful books that begat a hugely successful movie that begat more hugely successful movies. ("Successful," to be clear, in the purely financial sense of the word.) Fifty Shades itself was a hugely successful book that begat another hugely successful book that begat another hugely successful book, and those, in turn, begat a hugely successful movie that will, in 2017, begat what will likely be another hugely successful movie. That the corporations behind these behemoths, among them Penguin Random House, owner of Vintage Books, and Universal Pictures, would want more stories to publicize and franchise and otherwise monetize is entirely unsurprising.
There is, instead, a capitalistic inevitability to this whole endeavor. The companies are doing what they do so well: capitalizing, in every sense of the word.
There is, however, one good thing—one non-craven thing—about the news of an addition to the Fifty Shades franchise. It has to do with the particular kind of sequel that Grey promises to be. It’s significant that Grey’s story will be told from Christian's point of view—the point of view, in other words, of the villain.
That narrative approach puts Grey in league with many other recent reboots and sequels and franchise-extenders, whether they’re of fairy tales or comic books or stories that are purposely banal in their subject matter. Wicked. The latest Cinderella. Maleficent. Mirror Mirror. Shrek. Confessions of an Ugly Stepsister. Wide Sargasso Sea. Breaking Bad. The Wire. The Sopranos. Orange Is the New Black. Etc. These are premised not just on the idea that villains and anti-heroes are often more interesting than their protagonistic counterparts, but also on the notion that there is literary value in empathy. These stories insist on badness—evil, cruelty, criminality, whatever form it may seem to take—not just as a sui generis situation, but as something that is systematized. And, thus, the effect of a series of causes. There’s a reason Walter White behaves the way he does. Just as there’s a reason Cinderella’s stepmother is so terrible to her young charge. Those reasons can be compelling, and revealing. As i09 put it, “A villain is just a hero who needs to get a better PR department.”
So what Grey represents, besides capitalism at work, is also something slightly more optimistic: It is capitalism that is capitalizing on empathy itself. Capitalism that has decided to care what someone like Christian Grey thinks about the world, and that assumes that readers will care, too. Why does Grey do what he does? Why does he take pleasure in others’ pain? We are, apparently, about to find out. “As anyone who has ever been in a relationship knows,” James put it, “there are two sides to every story.”