I learn with some astonishment that Michael Moore's book Stupid White Men . . . and Other Sorry Excuses for the State of the Nation has sold more than a million copies in the UK. I see profiles of Michael Moore in the Guardian. A Canadian friend recommends that I see Bowling for Columbine, Moore's documentary on the US gun industry. And when Michael Moore's documentary Fahrenheit 9/11 wins the Palme d'Or at the Cannes Film Festival, British friends assume it must be front-page news in the US and that Michael Moore is the talk of the nation.
Hardly. Moore's victory received only grudging mentions in most US newspapers. It made only the C "Style" section of the Washington Post. With Americans still bitter about the French failure to go along with the invasion of Iraq, there was just the occasional snide reference to the French and their strange tastes, even though the Cannes jury was not predominantly French. Though Stupid White Men and Dude, Where's My Country? made the number one spot in the New York Times bestseller lists - and though Bowling for Columbine won an Oscar for Best Documentary last year - Moore remains very much a cult following here, big on campuses but hardly on the radar screens of most Americans. To mainstream America, he is - if anybody - the scruffy fat man who spoiled last year's Oscar ceremonies by railing against George Bush and the Iraq war a few days after the invasion started.
Even Robert Reich, labour secretary in the Clinton administration, whom many considered the most left-wing in that team, says: "I enjoy his films and his books, but he doesn't represent much of America." Dan Bartlett, the White House communications director, considers the film "so outrageously false, it's not even worth comment". There are reports that Republican officials might try to use the Federal Election Commission to ban the film. "The ideology that Michael Moore uses and the vision that he's created of the country [is] we're all sort of doomed to a life of poverty and lack of success," says the film-maker Mike Wilson, who is supposedly making a documentary called Michael Moore Hates America.
So far, at least as I write, Fahrenheit 9/11 does not even have a distributor in the US - though it has distributors in every other major territory outside the country, and though Bowling for Columbine made more than $120m worldwide on a budget of only $4m. Fahrenheit 9/11 is said to have been made as part of a secret $6m deal with Harvey Weinstein, head of Miramax. Miramax's parent company, the Walt Disney Corporation, it is said, was kept in the dark. Now Disney is refusing to distribute the film and wants to sell it back to Miramax, which already has three smaller distributors lined up.
So why is Moore not respected at least as a successful US artistic export? The first reason is that he is overweight and scruffy - not the sort of look Americans like. He also makes documentaries, which is very much a minority taste rather than an art form in this country. American filmgoers prefer to see Tom Cruise in some fantasy rubbish rather than serious, issue-driven films. But most of all, Moore is seen as anti-American, and this Americans cannot stand. Thus, not even Reich feels comfortable in making a pro-Moore comment.
Moore's own explanation is as follows: "My way of looking at the world comes from a Midwestern populism and a working-class sensibility, and that's always felt uncomfortable to otherwise good liberals who think: 'I wish we had someone more cultured. Why him?' People like me have to save liberals from themselves."
There is, as anybody who has watched his documentaries knows, more than a touch of the ham in Moore - another reason why Hollywood and America do not embrace him. He lives in an expensive penthouse in Manhattan and flies around in corporate jets; he took an entourage of more than 20 to Cannes. He is probably alone in thinking he really has become part of the American way of life. "It is rare, and I don't know when it's happened in the last 20 or 30 years, when someone on the left has crossed over to mainstream America," he says. "That's mostly the left's fault, because they don't know how to talk to real people. In fact, they don't really like real people, a lot of them."
Perhaps what most infuriates the minority of Americans who see his films is that he has an undeniable sense of humour. Like Rush Limbaugh on the right, he succeeds in making people laugh at his targets. Americans do not like being reminded that they comprise only 5 per cent of the world's population, or that much of the remainder do not worship all things American: and, coming from an American like Moore, that message is especially unwelcome.