What's in a name? Only a never-ending case of mistaken identity

Spare a thought for authors who share the same moniker, says Bill Saunders
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The Independent Culture
Someone had obviously been telling lies about Joan Brady. Complete strangers wrote to thank her for changing their lives. Then at a talk she gave to a Surrey literary society she was requested to inscribe a book she had not written.

This is the key to this Kafkaesque scenario: Joan Brady is an author, and so is another Joan Brady. Joan the First has had a successful career as a novelist. Joan the Second is best known for her self-development books but has recently launched into fiction with God on a Harley, the story of a woman's encounter with a mystical Hell's Angel. No doubt this will delight her public but it is not the sort of book Joan the First would have written.

The problem of two literary reputations sharing the same name is actually quite common. When both reputations are sufficiently eminent there is less chance of confusion. Rather like magnets, however, if there is not enough polarity, the more powerful reputation will start to pull the other in its wake. Romantic novelist Kate Saunders is often congratulated on her knowledge of China. The praise is of course due to another Kate Saunders, who wrote a history of Chinese prisons. When the reputations are in the same field, even the authors' friends can get confused. Robin Waterfield, author of the biography of Kahlil Gibran, has grown used to having his reputation assimilated along with another Robin Waterfield, who also writes about mysticism. This causes people to assume that they are being introduced to one when they are meeting the other.

The two Robin Waterfields have never met but co-exist amiably. But it can be disturbing to discover the existence of a shadow self with a will of its own. According to Joan the First, "It's hard to tie down why you're so miffed but it's like, don't take my photo - don't steal my soul." Joan the Second might well feel the same way because she has always refused direct contact with Joan the First.

Joan the First feels especially proprietorial about the name because she has used it professionally since the age of 14, when she was a dancer. On the stage, of course, professional names are protected because Equity will not issue a membership card to anyone under the name of an already enrolled member. Authors have no such protection.

Some authors do not care. When Sam North published his first novel he received a letter from another Sam North requesting him to alter his name but by that time it was too late. He once received a letter congratulating him on what was definitely one of his books from someone who was obviously an old flame of the other Sam. But the internet is a great leveller. Call up Sam North via the Internet bookseller Amazon.Com and both men's works appear together in an indistinguishable tangle.

Exactly the same problem occurs with Joan Brady, which has turned Joan the First's unease to anger. Sam the Younger is taken aback too. "Perhaps one of us should alter our names," he says. But Joan the First doesn't see why she should. The old British Library Catalogue solved the problem by including birth dates; why cannot the high-tech Amazon.Com do the same? For her it is typical of the way commerce dictates too much. "Some things are sacred," she says.