An awful virus is stalking the world of children's books

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The Independent Online

It is widely known that one of the occupational hazards of writing for a living is that, quite suddenly, you are likely to be sent clean round the twist. Unsuccessful authors can go mad grinding out prose that no one wants to read, making calls to publishers and agents that are never returned, and growing sour and anxious on a daily diet of humiliation, rejection and envy.

It is widely known that one of the occupational hazards of writing for a living is that, quite suddenly, you are likely to be sent clean round the twist. Unsuccessful authors can go mad grinding out prose that no one wants to read, making calls to publishers and agents that are never returned, and growing sour and anxious on a daily diet of humiliation, rejection and envy.

The insanity of successful writers is of a different order. Having worked alone for many months, they are periodically propelled into public life where they become persuaded that their views, looks, sex life and bank balance are of interest to all and sundry.

Who could be surprised that sometimes the psyche cracks in this tension between private writer and public personality. The observer becomes the observed. As John Updike famously put it: "The 'successful' writer acquires a film over his eyes. His eyes get fat."

The fat-eyed establishment writer has been much in evidence lately. Embarrassing pictures have been published of Salman Rushdie, beaming contentedly at the camera at some Manhattan party, his arm around his latest squeeze - a statuesque Indian model who is not only much younger and much more beautiful than he is but also, most devastatingly of all, considerably taller. The couple are said to be regulars at all the sort of places where a serious writer should not be seen - the fashion show, the showbiz awards ceremony, the magazine bash.

Meanwhile, in James Atlas's long-awaited biography of Saul Bellow, other side-effects of the celebrity syndrome are revealed: rampant promiscuity, a paranoiac sense that nobody appreciates one's genius, a belief that a Nobel laureate is justified in behaving just as badly as he pleases. "You women liberationists!" he is reported to have shouted at a female graduate. "All you're going to have to show for your movement 10 years from now are sagging breasts."

Occasionally the early symptoms of the celebrity virus can be spotted in a writer's work. There were worrying signs of it in Martin Amis's Experience, a memoir in which somehow the only real characters seemed to be writers, actors or media types. The author's performance at the Hay Festival, where he and his interviewer/best friend Christopher Hitchens were so far up each other that they might have qualified as a circus act, compounded these fears. Martin, once so sensible, was falling under the spell of celebrity.

There has always been one corner of the literary scene that remained beyond the cult of personality. Those who wrote for children were paid little and publicised hardly at all. But, alarmingly, that now seems to be about to change.

Last week it was reported that, according to a survey, JK Rowling was the fifth most powerful woman in Hollywood, just behind Julia Roberts and Steven Spielberg. Jacqueline Wilson now appears in the colour supplement lists of the country's highest earners. With the publication this week of The Amber Spyglass, Philip Pullman has been widely lionised in the press.

As it happens, these three authors are too sensible to be unbalanced by celebrity, but there are signs that the world of children's books is succumbing to the general madness. Eoin Colfer, a teacher from County Wexford, has just secured the largest-ever advance for a children's novel by an unknown author - before publication, his book Artemis Fowl will have made a million pounds.

It's all very worrying. Suddenly children's books are the hot new medium and their authors are being lured down a path leading to Indian models and parties and tantrums. I would advise Mr Colfer to stay in the teachers' staff room for as long as possible.

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