Literary opinions

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Today's xkcd:

Mouseover title: "If I really focus, I can distinguish between John Steinbeck and John Updike, or between Gore Vidal and Vidal Sassoon, but not both at once."

Then there's the problem of keeping the Brontë sisters straight, though I've never encountered the theory that they're all different pen names for the same person, or that Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights are the same book with different covers.



  1. m said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 5:12 pm

    An article in the Guardian a few months ago demonstrated that such confusion is frequent among reviews on "Reviews for Wuthering Heights appearing under listings for Jane Eyre, and vice versa." Several plays by Shakespeare seemed to be treated as interchangeable, and other similar absurdities seemed common. After the writer of the article pointed it out, some of the errors were corrected.

    Complete article here:

  2. Narmitaj said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 7:10 pm

    I was watching a TV quiz show yesterday (Pointless*) and the author of Man and Superman was the question. For some reason the names Bertrand Russell and then S J Perelman popped into my head. I knew both were wrong and that I was seeking the author of Pygmalion, but by then access to the relevant chunk of memory had been stubbornly blocked by the other gentlemen's not-very-close but close-enough names. The correct answer of George Bernard Shaw aka G B Shaw didn't come until the hosts gave the answer.

    *Pointless is the name of the BBC1 TV show, not a comment on my activity. Normally contestants are members of the general public, but they also have a celebrity version called Pointless Celebrities.

  3. SlideSF said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 8:22 pm

    Don't even get me started on Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair

  4. Jerry Friedman said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 10:33 pm

    Are people more likely to confuse George Eliot with T. S. Eliot or with George Sand?

  5. Kristian said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 10:34 pm

    In the novel Cold Comfort Farm, there is a character who claims that the Brontë sisters' works were written by their brother Branwell, but I don't know whether anyone suggested this in real life.

  6. Aaron Toivo said,

    June 13, 2019 @ 11:56 pm

    It goes beyond writers, of course; Paul Ryan and Rand Paul get me every time.

  7. Y said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 1:30 am

    For at least on Brontë, Beaton is helpful.

  8. joel said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 4:49 am

    I have an alternative confusion when it comes to T.H. White which is with C. P. Snow.


    Because Snow is White.

  9. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 6:59 am

    Jerry Friedman: Definitely T.S. Eliot. I remember being told, as a child, that George Eliot was a woman, and not believing this because I had seen pictures of him.

  10. Rube said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 8:09 am

    I am determined to confuse Ken Kesey and Jack Kerouac, and I have no idea why.

  11. Rodger C said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 8:14 am

    Francis Bacon and Roger Bacon.

  12. Philip Taylor said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 8:24 am

    Oh, very well. I wasn't planning to play this game, but Rodger C's two Bacons has forced my hand. John Tavener and John Taverner.

  13. Thorin said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 8:43 am

    Orson Welles, George Orwell, and H.G. Wells get me constantly

  14. richardelguru said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 12:42 pm

    @ Philip Taylor,
    not to mention all the Roberts Johnson, and not just the musical ones. I strongly suspect that they were a he (they was a he??) and that the one who sold his soul to the Devil wasn't the blues singer, but the Scottish one born about 1470, died in 1938.

  15. Kiwanda said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 1:53 pm

    The difficulty of telling Dermot Mulroney and Dylan McDermott apart was the subject of an SNL skit.

    I used to get confused about Hoyt Axton, Bill Paxton, and Bill Pullman, and also Travis Tritt and Randy Travis, and also Lucy Liu and Lisa Ling; I hope the latter is not a bad sign.

  16. Gregory Kusnick said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 2:24 pm

    Bertrand Russell and Alfred Russel Wallace.

  17. EvelynU said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 2:42 pm

    "Don't even get me started on Sinclair Lewis and Upton Sinclair."
    me too.

    Babbitt in the Jungle, or something?

  18. Jen in Edinburgh said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 4:03 pm

    Aaron Toivo reminded me of Aphra Behn and Ayn Rand, neither of whom I generally think about often.

    There are the ones who might as well be the same person for all I know about them – Thomas Hardy and Anthony Trollope – but there are also the ones where I know perfectly well which 'personality' did what, but still muddle the names – Leonard Cohen and Leonard Nimoy, or Bob Dylan and David Bowie…

  19. David Morris said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 5:57 pm

    Taverner and Tavener are easily distinguishable as people and by their music. I just can't remember which spelling is which person.
    There is an old joke about a society matron who though Schubert and Schumann were the same person, and I remember one of my lecturers talking about Schutz, Schein and Scheidt.

  20. Narmitaj said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 6:07 pm

    @Thorin – of course, Wells and Welles came together in the mental space of War of the Worlds. And Orwell was influenced by Wells, positively when young but sufficiently negatively when older that Wells wrote to Orwell following some disparaging (and not completely accurate) comments in print: "I don't say that at all. Read my early works, you shit". (See Dorian Lynskey's The Ministry of Truth, a bio of the novel 1984, p.82)

    Of course, Orwell is responsible for his confusion with Wells and Welles in your mind, his real name being Blair.

    Anyway, just this evening I had a brain-jam conflating Roddy Doyle (Irish novelist b. 1958) and Danny Boyle (movie director b 1956); I'd only just seen Boyle on TV on Graham Norton's chat show but Doyle's name refused to get out of the way when I was mentioning it to someone afterwards and I had to look up the director of Trainspotting to get Boyle's name back.

    Also on the Norton show was Cheryl Crowe (US singer), not to be confused with Cheryl Cole (UK singer). However, Cheryl Cole, Cheryl Tweedy and Cheryl Fernandez-Versini are genuinely all the same person, who now goes by the mononym Cheryl. (Not to be confused with Cherie Blair, who is not George Orwell's daughter.)

  21. Bloix said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 9:24 pm

    When i was in college a kid on my floor wrote a very funny essay proving that Tolstoy and Dostoevsky were the same person – Tolstoyevsky.

  22. Bloix said,

    June 14, 2019 @ 9:36 pm

    Also, I have trouble with Bill Monroe and Bob Wills.
    And if you ever bring up Garry Wills, it's guaranteed that the person you're talking to will think you mean George Will.

  23. John Walden said,

    June 15, 2019 @ 1:16 am

    I rember a very 70s person who said:

    'I really dig Alive in Wonderland and the Narnia books. How groovy the guy who wrote them was'

    'Yeah, but one was by Lewis Carroll and the other by CS Lewis'

    'That's just your opinion, man'

  24. David J. Littleboy said,

    June 15, 2019 @ 3:42 am

    Koike Mariko and Hayashi Mariko.

  25. Rodger C said,

    June 15, 2019 @ 9:36 am

    Some of us don't know Scheidt from Scheinola.

  26. Thomas Rees said,

    June 15, 2019 @ 10:04 pm

    Bravo, Roger C! The -ola affix helps remind us that Johann Schein’s music is more Italianate than Samuel Scheidt’s.

  27. Yerushalmi said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 2:37 am

    For me it's Matthew Broderick and Matthew McConaughey.

  28. M. Paul Shore said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 2:38 am

    Every time I hear Theresa May mentioned on the radio, my mind wants to hear the name extended to “Theresa May Alcott”.

  29. Narmitaj said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 8:32 am

    Here's an anecdote I spotted at notalwaysright, by someone who works in a bookshop:

    Me: “Hi. Can I help you find anything?”

    Customer: “Yeah, do you have any books by Ray Bradbury?”

    Me: “Yes, I know we’ve got—”

    Customer: “Wait, not Bradbury. Brown.”

    Me: “Ray Brown? I’ll have to check.”

    Customer: “Okay. And his name’s not Ray…”

  30. Rodger C said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 9:16 am


  31. eub said,

    June 16, 2019 @ 10:05 pm

    I truly never realized that Davids Bowie and Byrne were distinct until the former died. The combined body of work puzzled me.

  32. Dumaresq said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 12:58 am

    Cormac McCarthy
    Carson McCullers
    Colleen McCullough

  33. Marc Sacks said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 11:48 am

    I have to keep reminding myself that Patriotic Gore was not written by Gore Vidal (and it certainly wasn't his nickname, either).

  34. Chandra said,

    June 17, 2019 @ 2:39 pm

    Jerry Friedman's comment above just led me to realize that I've been conflating George Eliot with George Sand.

    I've also been mixing up Theresa May and Elizabeth May, even though their politics could hardly be any different.

  35. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    June 19, 2019 @ 10:35 am

    Joseph Campbell and John W. Campbell.

    Caroline Graham and that other writer who isn't the same as her.

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