British media, in writing about the departure of tousle-headed Zayn Malik from the band One Direction, have taken to putting a distress-line number at the bottom of the article, for those who are too distraught by the content to continue living. This is no joke: Threats of suicide and self-harm have been made in multiple Twitter and YouTube postings by fans of the London-based band. The hashtag #cutforzayn trended for a while, accompanied by some gruesome photos of slashed forearms, but it has been impossible to tell if these were hoaxes. (A similar prank fooled the media in 2013, when a hashtag encouraged Justin Bieber fans to cut themselves; it turned out it had been created by trolls who would have been pleased to see young women bleeding.)
I do not know Zayn Malik as a singer: I know him as a purely literary phenomenon. He is probably the second-most popular character in prose fiction in the entire world. (The first would be his band mate, Harry Styles.) I have never to my knowledge heard a song by One Direction, but I have read, or at least begun to read, a dozen stories about him this morning alone. It is impossible to count the number of Malik novels currently published or in the process of being serialized online, for even the channels of distribution are multiplying as we speak. The biggest repository of Malik fiction is Wattpad, where I cannot tell you how many stories there are because I literally cannot scroll down the list; it goes on for more pages than I could actually afford to count before the end of the day.
And stories specifically about Malik are far outnumbered by stories about the entire band, in which Malik is one of several heroes. Malik has one role in all of these stories, and that is to fall in love. He must fall in love, usually, with a shy girl who does not hang out with the cool kids but is nevertheless more interesting than the cool kids, a fact that Malik can discern pretty quickly merely by watching her on the bus (he has to take a bus for reasons sometimes unexplained) or by babysitting her. The babysitting trope is recurrent: A teen heroine finds that the new babysitter who has arrived to take care of her younger brother is in fact Malik, or even the entire band. Sometimes the heroine is herself hired (by the Mephistophelian Simon Cowell) as a kind of babysitter for One Direction. Malik will fall in love with her, but his jet-setting life will leave her torn: Will she be able to persuade him to settle down? Will she, a simple girl at heart, be able to tolerate the luxury and excess (that he also secretly finds distasteful)?
Malik's role in One Direction was to be the mysterious or bad boy, and so the fiction based on his character tends to be racier than those concerning the androgynous Styles. The most popular Malik story on Wattpad right now is "He's No Good," by Malik-IsSexy, with at least 17,398,869 reads and 90,609 comments.
These are numbers completely unimaginable in the world of literary publishing. But then any numbers reflecting the success of One Direction are mind-spinning. They are the first band in history to have four consecutive albums debut at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 chart. Forbes estimated they made $75-million (U.S.) between June, 2013, and June, 2014, alone.
It was extremely lucky for culture commentators that Malik's departure from One Direction and Jeremy Clarkson's firing from the BBC show Top Gear happened in the same week. The parallels were ironclad: massively popular bad boys, leaving lucrative entertainment vehicles that may collapse without them. The wondering about whether One Direction can continue has taken the same apocalyptic tone as the fears for the end of Top Gear.
The brilliant suggestion that Clarkson should take Malik's place in the boy band was quick to come, and an edited YouTube video that takes a One Direction video and replaces Malik's face with Clarkson's goofy grinning head is quite compelling.
The sense of personal loss expressed by the two camps of grieving fans is also similarly emotional. The rage about Clark-son's dismissal is sheer irrational emotion, a feeling that something pure and good and natural has been wrenched from everyday people by some kind of uniquely contemporary corruption. In Malik's case, the pressure of fame is blamed (the mean paparazzi who tried to ruin his engagement to Perrie Edwards, a singer in another band, by exposing him standing too close to another woman in a Thai nightclub). In Clarkson's case, the villain is the thought police, the authoritarian leftists who would ruin everyone's fun over a couple of tasteless jokes. (The columnists railing against political correctness fail to mention that Clarkson punched an underling so hard the guy went to hospital.) Both sets of grievers feel that they had a personal bond with a celebrity.
The same week, thousands of ordinary Britons queued for hours to view the coffin of Richard III; 35,000 people lined the funeral route, drawing 700 accredited journalists from around the world. The pomp and the reverence were extraordinary: a horse-drawn carriage, white roses, knights in armour. This was for a king best-known for forcing his subjects to fight for him in bloody battles for supreme power against rival nobles. He died 530 years ago, so people can't even pretend they knew him. They just know they are sad for him.