Commentary

The cult of the children's author as a celebrity continues to grow. Please let's have more books rea

As Allan Bloom so chillingly pointed out in The Closing of the American Mind, we are the first generation in history to teach the great majority of our children less than we know ourselves. We must also be the first deliberately to inculcate in them values we despise. Everyone knows that, in itself, celebrity is worthless. We have no doubt that what's important in art is the actual writing, music or painting.

Why then, all over the country, are supposedly intelligent, educated adults acting as if they believe you have only to touch someone's hem for magic to flow? Families will queue for hours so that one of their offspring can get a favourite author's signature. And authors, made biddable by the mantra "A signed book is a sold book", sit, scribble and smile.

Some signatures may have been truly special once. (I am reminded of the story of Beatrix Potter looking up from her gardening to see a child gawping over the hedge. "What do you want?" "I've come to see the famous author Beatrix Potter." "Well, now you've seen her, so push off.") But with literary festivals and signings all over, only the very naive would walk into a second-hand bookshop and expect to make a profit on one signed copy among thousands.

But there we see them, at Hay-on-Wye, and Edinburgh and Cheltenham, standing in sun or rain, the younger siblings fretting and struggling against the straps of their strollers. One or two might be reading the book their parent just bought them, but most are not. They're simply queuing. It all amounts to hours of wasted reading time for the whole family.

And doesn't it show. Child after child will claim to be "your greatest fan" yet not have read more than a very few of your books. They'll talk with enthusiasm of other favourite writers, and prove not to have read much of their work either. But, by God, these fans have worked hard on their project. ("We're doing you in school.") They'll know your favourite food is toasted cheese, you pride yourself on your unrivalled clutch control, and you have a big fat hairy dog called Henry.

"Eschew parochialism!" one of my teachers used to cry. Now, in the classrooms of Britain, I can only assume that teachers are sitting on their tables chatting about Jacqueline Wilson's silver rings and Michael Morpurgo's "dream-time". (Let's hope they won't encourage their pupils to research Madonna's backlist. I can't see projects on her book Sex going down frightfully well with most parents.)

What is the point of it? It won't help anyone to be a better reader. The only thing that does that is reading, or being read to, more. It won't help anyone to be a better writer either. Can't we be loftier, with all of us authors sent packing back home to concentrate and even, without the distractions, write better? Perhaps it's too much to hope that publishers should of their own accord undertake once again to do their part of the job - selling the books - all by themselves. (Would it truly make such a difference? When I was ten, I didn't know whether Henry Treece liked jazz or hated coconut. I didn't even realise that Richmal Crompton was a woman. But I'd read every one of the books they'd published. Every one.)

It's not likely, either, that the people who run literary festivals will offer to slit their own economic throats. And I've lost hope that audiences will suddenly sicken of hearing each author's relentless I, I, I's studded through the statutory hour like telephone poles across the horizon and start a salutary rush for the exits.

No, the only way to break up this ghastly Vanity Fest is to start with the new generation. Instead of trying to hook them into books with all this peripheral rubbish about the author, we could tell them the truth. The author doesn't matter; it's the book that counts. Is it a good read or isn't it?

So let's have a lot more courses on children's literature for teachers and parents and librarians. And far higher expectations of our newspapers - with their perennial, outdated headline "Step aside, Enid Blyton!". And, please, please, more books read and shared with children, and fewer "favourite foods" and hurried signatures. After all, it's not as if children are born so daft that, without our steady encouragement, they'd think a name written in the front of a book (apart from their own) adds any magic. Last week, on a train ride, I sat opposite a passionate young reader devouring a brand new copy of a book of mine. Her mother watched me tinkering with the proofs of my next novel.

"Are you allowed to change an author's words like that?" she asked at last, forcing me to admit that they were my words to change. "So you're Anne Fine? Then will you sign Clara's book for her?"

I reached out and, very, very reluctantly, Clara stopped reading and handed it over.

As I got off the train at Berwick-upon-Tweed, I heard the wail go up. Indeed, the whole carriage heard her.

"Mu-um! Why did you let that woman scribble in my brand new book?"

That is the spirit, Clara. We need more like you.

Anne Fine's latest book, The More the Merrier, is published by Doubleday