B uild them up, then tear them down: that is the British way with celebrities, whether it be the newest tennis player to win a couple of matches at Wimbledon or the latest actress to catch the wandering eye of the critics. And what is true in popular culture is just as evident in the higher variants. Think of Martin Amis the wunderkind of the Seventies, now criticised for everything from personal vanity (remember those teeth) to pro-American sympathies.
This week's treatment of Zadie Smith by a London newspaper provided a telling illustration of the process. On Tuesday, the Evening Standard broke the embargo date for reviews of her new book The Autograph Man that was requested by her publishers as a condition of providing review copies. And the review did not appear in the usual arts coverage, but as part of an entire page-three news feature, complete with a paparazzi-snapped picture of the off-guard young woman slipping a key into her front door that morning.
The book review itself was a rave, but this was not the reason for the star treatment; it was because Zadie Smith is already a celebrity. Since the publication of her first novel, White Teeth, in January 2000, when she was just 23, she has been as feted for her good looks and her modish interests (from Madonna and hip-hop to her opinions about multiculturalism and the treatment of immigrants) as much as for her stunning talent and her fearsome precocity. And besides the much-anticipated appearance of her second novel - can she do it again? - there is the pre-publicity for the television adaptation of White Teeth, part one of which is broadcast next week on Channel 4, to serve the Standard as a peg to revive public interest in the author.
By Thursday, the paper had moved quickly on to chapter two of the media manual of celebrity coverage: the bitchy profile. A two-page attempt to dish the dirt was introduced with the blaring headline "The secret life of Zadie Smith" and promises to "reveal what the famously guarded young author would rather you didn't know". What follows is a classic character assassination by rumour and innuendo. Take these typical words, emphasised by being pulled out of the text and blown-up to entice the would-be reader: "She had several bizarre relationships. Boyfriends came and went, leaving her appetites largely unsatisfied." There is no further information about these "appetites", and no explanation of what was wrong with a young university student not settling down with the first man she dated. But what does come across from the whole article is the suggestion that there is something monstrous, if unnameable, in the personality of the young woman who writes so well.
It would take a tedious lawyerly deposition to correct the numerous mistakes and false implications in this account of Smith's "secret life". But the real interest is in the motive and in the effects of this sort of journalism. Of course the apparent motive is obvious: to appeal to the prurient interests of the public in order to sell newspapers. What is more difficult to explain is how our culture has normalised the media's pandering to that side of our nature.
The effects may be disastrous. The real Zadie Smith is getting on a plane this weekend to take up an offer by Harvard University to write her next book, a non-fiction one, in the United States away from all the uninvited and distracting hoopla she is exposed to here. Smith's friend, the writer Lisa Appignanesi, comments in this regard on the "ludicrously burdensome response to real achievement and the level of envy which chases people away".
Appignanesi first became aware of Zadie Smith seven years ago, when her son Josh reported to her that one of his first-year contemporaries at King's College, Cambridge, had an extraordinary talent for writing. Zadie and Josh sent her a few short-stories, the first of which Appignanesi remembers as being "Virginia Woolf-like in feeling, with real structure and great literary poise. …