Payne, former deputy literary editor of the Daily Telegraph, finds the Kardashian sisters' classical counterparts in Fame.

You write that in sharing the public life of a celebrity, we're both living vicariously and bonding over a shared experience—the death of Michael Jackson, the marriage of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes. Is this healthy?

I don't know if it's healthy, but it does strike me as normal, and that communal worship and grieving does have close analogies with religious rituals. The Cruise-Holmes question is tricky, though: what unites us isn't quite what publicists would hope unites us, and often we're more bonded by gossip and innuendo than we would be by wedding cake and bunting.

The worlds of celebrity and politics seem to be increasingly colliding, with celebrities like Arnold Schwarzenegger and Al Franken getting into public office. What are the consequences of this blurring between the two worlds?

They always have been blurred. There are a few examples of Athenian statesmen who made their names through sport. Aristotle called people who govern "the well-known." I'm relieved that Wyclef Jean can't run for president of Haiti. It was impossible enough keeping the Fugees together, let alone one of the most damaged countries on Earth.

What does the popularity of a show like American Idol say about our desire to anoint or reject stars?

I saw America's Got Talent the other day and was amazed by how the audiences turned themselves into pumping Xs, as if they were symbolically crossing the competitors out. It confirms my belief that it links to the idea of rounding on members of our society who seem less useful to us.

The publication of Fame is giving you some fame of your own. How do you feel about this?

I've always wanted a little fame, I confess. Actually, I think this book has prepared me for not getting the fame. I don't think I'm going to get "papped" too soon. I had to cover a colleague's lesson the other day, and a boy said, "Do you actually teach at this school?" One step at a time, then.

Let's play a game. I'll name a celebrity, you tell me about the mythological counterpart they bring to mind. Kurt Cobain.

The romantic visionary who sees far enough beyond our world that he ends up joining another sphere prematurely.

Charles Manson.

A ghoulish pinup for would-be Herostrati. Herostratus was the man who burned down the temple of Diana at Ephesus so that he could get into the history books.

Mick Jagger.

A jammy exception to the Faust myth: thanks to some unseen agency, the man can taste pleasures beyond our reach and somehow stay alive.

Heidi Montag.

So much surgery, so young! Maybe, according to Plato's theory of forms, in the world beyond this one there's the ideal of Heidi Montag, and all earthly Heidi Montags (Montagen?) can only aspire to partake of the essence of the über-Montag.