Philip Hensher: Don't dismiss 'Heat'. It's a very superior product

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Ask a sensible question, and, now and again, you might just get a sensible answer. If you asked a group of adults what their favourite reading was, self-consciousness would intervene, and, after a moment's thought, you would be given the name of a novel or a literary genre. If you ask a group of teenagers the same question, however, as the organisers of the National Year of Reading did last week, and you will get a much more realistic answer.

They liked reading their own blogs; they liked reading "online computer game cheats" (no, me neither – not a clue); they liked reading a few books, such as the diary of Anne Frank or the Harry Potter novels. Most of all, however, they said they like reading Heat magazine.

Heat coming out on top, as the favourite reading of teenagers, caused a certain amount of dismay in the outside world. How could anyone of any age nominate that as their favourite reading? Is it not vacuous, fatuous, tawdry and cheap? Doesn't that just prove that we're all heading to hell in a handcart? A Stephen McGinty in The Scotsman, wringing his hands, spoke luxuriantly of "the transcendental luxury of sailing in a giant boat of words which, in a fine novel, will transport you to some distant shore. Sadly, many children will never know what I have carelessly lost."

I have only one question for Mr McGinty and what he would probably call his ilk. Has he ever actually read Heat magazine?

Even though its circulation has recently fallen, it still sells over 530,000 copies each week. It is universally acknowledged to be a very superior product.

There's no doubt that it survives on a diet of paparazzi photographs and red-carpet shots, and its core is something we might not think very morally elevated. It might not lead the pack in the hounding of Amy Winehouse, Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan, but it didn't take any steps to avert its gaze once the subjects were known to be in some personal and psychic difficulties. It's very easy to make the case against Heat on this basis.

Popular magazines of this sort, however, if they are good, have always had a strong element of self-improvement and even education about them. Conventionally, this has come in the form of recipes, craft patterns and, as far as the moral improvement of its readers goes, the agony column. Heat doesn't have any of those, but that's not to say that it doesn't have a set of strong beliefs, and can perfectly well be seen as acting as a force for good in its readers' lives.

It's consistently taken a strong line against excessively thin women actors and models, for instance. Hardly a week goes by without some critical comment on someone's skeletal appearance, alternating with praise of women who look "healthy", particularly if they have come back from an emaciated appearance.

You might think this deliberately disingenuous, but the mockery, this week, of some really absurd Hollywood weight-loss diets is surely genuine. There is, too, an understated stress on the value of a broader culture and even education – the people who write for Heat have overcome a great deal of competition, and are a very smart bunch themselves. Any reader who writes an ungrammatical or ill-spelt letter may find themselves held up to ridicule under the sub-head "An illiterate writes". It has, too, what you might think an unexpectedly wide-ranging arts section, singing the praises of some very good novelists, serious television drama and such relatively demanding films as There Will Be Blood.

Most celebrity magazines have entered into an unlovely pact with their subjects. OK, for instance, appears to have some kind of agreement with Kerry Katona and Jordan to print pretty well all their doings, no doubt for a fee. Heat is much more sceptical. The deals are often laid open – this week, what they were allowed to ask Girls Aloud in exchange for mentioning some chocolate bar or other. Quite regularly, a grasping celebrity or their entourage is ripped apart in a way that Lynn Barber might envy. The author is clearly no fool, and does its readership the compliment of thinking them no fools either.

There are more deplorable productions in the world than Heat magazine, and it shouldn't worry anyone to discover that it's their daughter's favourite reading. It doesn't mean for one second that it's their only reading, or that it's preventing them from making a start on Moby Dick. Personally, I don't much care for the celebrity obsession which is swamping society. But if you wanted your children to grow up with a healthy scepticism towards that obsession, and a clear sense that there was more in the world to achieve than looking as much like Paris Hilton as possible, you could do a lot worse than turn a blind eye to this particular Tuesday morning habit.