Quiz: Can You Identify These Famous Writers By Their Distinctive Prose Alone?


Were he still with us, today would have been celebrated American novelist John Updike’s 80th birthday. One of our country’s best writers of any era (one of only three to have won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction more than once), Updike is remembered not only for his prolific writing habits, solid storytelling, and concern with the drama of the middle class, but also for his wonderfully distinctive prose style — a lush, highly metaphorical and allusive interpretation of the realist tradition that sweeps you away and keeps you grounded all at once. Indeed, Updike famously described his own writing style as his way “to give the mundane its beautiful due.” In honor of Updike’s legendary style, we’ve put together a little quiz to test how well you know your famous writers. All of the following paragraphs were written by authors widely noted for the distinctiveness of their prose — and we’ve already given one away. Click through to test yourself, and let us know how you did in the comments!

Of course she came from somewhere else, came off the prairie in search of something she had seen in a movie or heard on the radio, for this is a Southern California story. She was born on January 17, 1930, in Winnipeg, Manitoba, the only child of Gordon and Lily Maxwell, both schoolteachers and both dedicated to the Seventh-Day Adventist Church, whose members observe the Sabbath on Saturday, believe in an apocalyptic Second Coming, have a strong missionary tendency, and, if they are strict, do not smoke, drink, eat meat, use makeup, or wear jewelry, including wedding rings. By the time Lucille Maxwell enrolled at Walla Walla College in College Place, Washington, the Adventist school where her parents then taught, she was an eighteen-year-old possessed of unremakrable good looks and remarkable high spirits. “Lucille wanted to see the world,” her father would say in retrospect, “and I guess she found out.”

Joan Didion, “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream”

Here the big trucks roared, wham, and inside two minutes one of them cranked to a stop for me. I ran for it with my soul whoopeeing. And what a driver — a great big tough truckdriver with popping eyes and a hoarse raspy voice who just slammed and kicked at everything and got his rig under way and paid hardly any attention to me. So I could rest my tired soul a little, for one of the biggest troubles hitchhiking is having to talk to innumerable people, make them feel that they didn’t make a mistake picking you up, even entertain them almost, all of which is a great strain when you’re going all the way and don’t plan to sleep in hotels.

Jack Kerouac, On the Road

The old man had his cup in his hand; it was an unusually large cup, of a different pattern from the rest of the set and painted in brilliant colours. He disposed of its contents with much circumspection, holding it for a long time close to his chin, with his face turned to the house. His companions had either finished their tea or were indifferent to their privilege; they smoked cigarettes as they continued to stroll. One of them, from time to time, as he passed, looked with a certain attention at the elder man, who, unconscious of observation, rested his eyes upon the rich red front of his dwelling. The house that rose beyond the lawn was a structure to repay such consideration and was the most characteristic object in the peculiarly English picture I have attempted to sketch.

Henry James, The Portrait of a Lady

It was my fault. I mean who else’s fault would it be? Am I right? That we moved your big soft body with allegedly not enough notice and that eastside school you cried over at that Negro research resource librarian there with the hair out to here that… that lady with the upturned nose on tiptoe all the time I have to tell you she seemed so consummate east-side Tucsonian all self-consciously not of this earth’s grit urging us to quote nurture your optical knack with physics with her nose upturned so you could see up in there and on her toes like something skilled overhead had sunk a hook between her big splayed fingerling’s nostrils and were reeling skyward up toward the aether little by little I’ll bet those heelless pumps are off the floor altogether by now son what do you say son what do you think… no, go on, cry, don’t inhibit yourself, I won’t say a word, except it’s getting to me less all the time when you do it, I’ll just warn you, I think you’re overworking the tears and the… it’s getting less effec… effective with me each time you use it though we know we both know don’t we just between you and me we know it’ll always work on your mother, won’t it, never fail, she’ll every time take and bend your big head down to her shoulder so it looks obscene, if you could see it, pat-patting on your back like she’s burping some sort of slumping oversized obscene bow-tied infant with a book straining his pronator teres, crying, will you do this when you’re grown?

David Foster Wallace, Infinite Jest

At noon they crossed the stony bottom of the Casas Grandes River and they rode along a benchland above the gaunt rill of water past a place of bones where Mexican soldiers had slaughtered an encampment of Apaches some years gone, women and children, the bones and skulls scattered along the bench for half a mile and the tiny limbs and toothless paper skulls of infants like the ossature of small apes at their place of murder and old remnants of weathered basketry and broken pots among the gravel. They rode on.

Cormac McCarthy, Blood Meridian

The tramp stood looking at her and didn’t answer. He turned his back and faced the sunset. He swung both his whole and his short arm up slowly so that they indicated an expanse of sky and his figure formed a crooked cross. The old woman watched him with her arms folded across her chest as if she were the owner of the sun, and the daughter watched, her head thrust forward and her fat helpless hands hanging at the wrists. She had long pink-gold hair and eyes as blue as a peacock’s neck.

Flannery O’Connor, “The Life You Save May Be Your Own”

I lit the lamp beside the bed, turned off the gas, and opened the wide windows. The bed as far back from the windows, and I sat with the windows open and undressed by the bed. Outside a night train, running on the street-car tracks, went by carrying vegetables to the markets. They were noisy at night when you could not sleep. Undressing, I looked at myself in the mirror of the big armoire beside the bed. That was a typically French way to furnish a room. Practical, too, I suppose. Of all the ways to be wounded. I suppose it was funny. I put on my pajamas and got into bed.

Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises

Somehow, though he can’t put his finger on the difference, he is unlike the other customers. They sense it too, and look at him with hard eyes, eyes like little metal studs pinned into the white faces of young men sitting in zippered jackets in booths three to a girl, the girls with orange hair hanging like wiggly seaweed or loosely bound with gold barrettes like pirate treasure. At the counter middle-aged couples in overcoats bunch their faces forward into the straws of gray ice-cream sodas.

John Updike, Rabbit, Run

He woke around 2:00 p.m. and showered and put on clothes. He walked into the kitchen listening to music from his iPod through earphones. He was alone in the apartment. He stared at the common room. He once watched a Korean movie with his suitemate in the common room. In the movie a cop accidentally jump-kicked another cop. The movie was about a serial killer.

Tao Lin, Richard Yates

A liquid of womb of woman eyeball gazed under a fence of lashes, calmly, hearing. See real beauty of the eye when she not speaks. On yonder river. At each slow satiny heaving bosom’s wave (her heaving embon) red rose rose slowly sank red rose. Heartbeats: her breath: breath that is life. And all the tiny tiny fernfoils trembled of maidenhair.

James Joyce, Ulysses