Being David Cohen

The pros and cons

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RECENTLY, I TYPED ‘David Cohen’ into Google Books, just for the modest thrill of seeing my name appear. The thrill quickly gave way to dismay when I saw how many other writers there are named David Cohen: dozens of the bastards. It’s difficult enough trying to stand out from all the writers not named David Cohen, without having to stand out from myself. 

Why, I wondered, didn’t I have the foresight to alter my name slightly – like the acclaimed television writer David X Cohen (the ‘X’, not surprisingly, doesn’t stand for anything) – to distinguish my writerly self from the herd? Maybe it wasn’t too late. After all, I thought, I’m not famous yet; I could make a fresh start as David Y Cohen or David Z Cohen, or maybe even David P (my middle name is Phillip) Cohen. But I feared that this might cause further identity confusion and, frankly, it seemed like a lot of work. 

To make matters worse, when I looked at the bio accompanying my four titles, I noticed that Google Books had mistakenly attributed their authorship to one of the other David Cohens: namely, the UK author of How the Child’s Mind Develops and other psychology textbooks, along with a few biographical works on Freud (who, incidentally, I’m willing to bet didn’t lie awake at night worrying about all the other psychoanalysts named Sigmund Freud) and the Royal Family (Diana: Death of a Goddess, etc.). Not only have I never once contemplated writing a book about Freud or Princess Diana, this particular David Cohen and I aren’t even in the same ballpark; he’s over there in non-fiction, whereas I rarely stray from fiction. Nice going, Google Books! 

AS I SET about reporting this oversight to Google Books, it occurred to me that the hijacking of my writerly identity may have its upside, in that the aforementioned David Cohen’s bio (psychologist, filmmaker, Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine) is far more impressive than mine. Surely, potential readers would be more inclined to buy books written by him than by me – especially if those potential readers had already read and enjoyed his books on Freud and Princess Diana.  

Interestingly, Cohen was born in 1946, while I can say with some certainty that I was born in 1967 (as Mark Twain might have quipped, reports of my birth have been greatly exaggerated). This means that I have twenty-one years up my sleeve in which to narrow the gap between me and my more accomplished namesake, eventually bringing our respective biographies into alignment. It will, of course, entail my becoming a psychologist, filmmaker and Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, but it will save Google Books the trouble of having to correct their error.*  

But David Cohen (b. 1946) is not the only David Cohen who has supposedly written my books. Having stumbled upon Google Books’ error, I subsequently discovered that, according to the online catalogues of several Australian public-library networks, my books were penned by David Cohen (b.1955), award-winning journalist (The Independent, The Guardian, The New York Times, etc.) and author of Chasing the Red, White, and Blue: A Journey in Tocqueville’s Footsteps through Contemporary America. Cohen studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, was a Harkness Fellow at Columbia University, and currently lives in London with his wife and two daughters (how I envy authors who live in London with their wife and two daughters).  

Could there be a more comprehensive list of things I haven’t been or done? And yet, in an instant, I have been and done them all – including the London/wife/two-daughters combination that has always so appealed to me. Had it not been for this cataloguing error (or was it the work of an anonymous good Samaritan?) my books – the ones I’ve actually written – may well have languished on the library shelves instead of enjoying, if not a frenzied borrowing history, at least a sufficiently active one to keep them off the culling list. Thank you, more-successful David Cohen. If only your royalty payments could somehow mistakenly find their way into my bank account. 

THE REAL PROBLEM seems to be that I spend more time scrutinising the bios of my competitors – er, fellow authors – than actually reading their books, or indeed writing my own. In this attention-seeking age, where relentless online self-promotion is the order of the day, surely even award-winning journalist/Harkness Fellow/London-wife-two-daughters David Cohen is gnashing his teeth when he discovers the slightly more successful David Cohen whose bio is mistakenly attached to his books. What we might term ‘bio anxiety’, or perhaps ‘bio envy’, surely afflicts even the most well-established author. All writers, assuming they are more or less as self-absorbed as I am, obsess over how they measure up against their peers in terms of commercial success, glowing-ness of reviews, racking-up of prestigious literary awards and so on. 

That last one is a painful reminder that being David Cohen brings with it a unique handicap, an unparalleled disadvantage, eclipsing any benefits I might derive from occasional cases of mistaken identity. I speak of the biennial £40,000 David Cohen Prize for Literature, named in honour of its founder, Dr David Cohen, a British GP and cultural philanthropist who passed away in 2019 at the age of eighty-nine. Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney, Hilary Mantel and Julian Barnes are just a few of the luminaries who have won the Cohen Prize.  

Clearly, this is where my name actively works against me.  

Even if I were somehow able to overcome the almost insurmountably stringent eligibility requirements (one must be a citizen of the UK or Republic of Ireland; one must demonstrate a hugely impressive lifetime’s achievement in literature; one cannot simply enter the prize but must be chosen for it by one’s peers), there is no way in hell the judges will award the David Cohen Prize to someone named David Cohen, for the obvious reason that if they did, everyone would be thinking to themselves, He didn’t win it on his merits; he only won it because he’s David Cohen.  

Now, obviously nobody would be silly enough to believe that the judges had awarded the prize to Dr David Cohen himself – after all, he’s (1) not a writer and (2) been dead for nearly five years – but to award it to any David Cohen would surely be perceived as a conflict of interest. Even the more illustrious David Cohens are just as disempowered as I am in this respect. Harold Pinter, Seamus Heaney et al. had a distinct edge over us; sure, they were great writers, but they also had better names.  

The way I see it, I have two options if I want a shot at the prize: talk my fellow David Cohens into bringing a class action against the organisers, or overcome my aversion to adopting a nom de plume. The first option sounds far too onerous, so pseudonym it is. And there’ll be none of this half-arsed stick-an-initial-between-forename-and-surname nonsense; my new moniker must be entirely new, a complete self-reinvention. Currently I’m leaning towards ‘Julian Barnes’. True, he has already won the David Cohen Prize, but surely that can only work in my favour. 

*Tragically, the error was corrected before this article went to press. 

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