05/16/2014 05:17 pm ET Updated Jul 14, 2014

The Undying Business of Self-Promotion

"She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good."

That comes from a paragraph near the beginning of The Way We Live Now, a great novel by the 19th century English author Anthony Trollope. The novel explores the hypocrisies of society -- in business and in art -- and the lengths to which people will try to convince each other of the truth of their falsehoods.

It's worth quoting the paragraph in full, to see how close, in some ways, the character whom Trollope describes -- one Lady Carbury, who has turned to literature not for personal expression but as a way to make some much-needed money -- to some people who create books today:

The one most essential obstacle to the chance of success in all this was probably Lady Carbury's conviction that her end was to be obtained not by producing good books, but by inducing certain people to say that her books were good. She did work hard at what she wrote -- hard enough at any rate to cover her pages quickly; and was, by nature, a clever woman.

She could write after a glib, commonplace, sprightly fashion, and had already acquired the knack of spreading all she knew very thin, so that it might cover a vast surface. She had no ambition to write a good book, but was painfully anxious to write a book that the critics should say was good.

− Anthony Trollope, The Way We Live Now

Describe anyone you've known or read?


This novel was published in 1873. Some 140 years later, not much has changed, at least for some writers, who see their work only as a means of getting noticed.

Not that there's anything wrong with that. One of the reasons people write is so that they become known.

But there is so much in publishing, in media, that is simply about regurgitating found information (as Trollope's character did in her book), about shouting to be heard, about simply being heard (without regard to being correct in the facts).

People are always trying to get others to believe them, whether they are sincere in those beliefs or not. It's like some kinds of advertising, a lot of spam emails, and a great deal of shoddy thinking behind a great many books.

Sure we may live in an age when a lot of people are trying to put one over on a lot of others. But our age is no different from many others, even the golden past. Truth never ages, neither does integrity. And neither, unfortunately, does charlatanism.

Still, there's no denying how entertaining it is to read about charlatans. I just wouldn't want to be one (or be around one).

What do you think?