Writers tell lies. Occasionally they mean to, but often they are only repeating the lies that they have been told. Once a lie appears in print, though, it’s hard to stop. Fact-checkers know this from all the hours they spend chasing down facts; the libeled know this from all the time they spend refuting libel. But sometimes, it’s hard to know the difference between a good lie and an unbelievable truth.
When a blogger named Daniel Bloom told me he knew of a whopping lie involving a literary superstar, I couldn’t resist. The Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgaard published a bestselling novel, an autobiographical beast in six parts. Famous for its “Faustian” betrayal of family and friends, the barely-veiled but finely-rendered memoir spans thousands of pages. My Struggle, the English translation of the book’s Norwegian title Min Kamp, sold nearly half a million copies in Norway, and has sold even more since it was translated into English in 2012; the third volume was just released in the United States in May.
All of that was true. But there was, in almost all of the English-speaking press coverage, Bloom told me, a claim so obviously false he couldn’t believe it was being repeated over and over. There it was in the Guardian, in theEconomist, in theNew York Times, on the website of theNew Yorker. Almost every outlet that covered My Struggle included a version of the claim that Karl Ove Knausgaard was so popular in Norway that talk of his work had been banned. So-called Knausgaard-free days had been instituted so that workers would be more productive.
There were no such days, Bloom told me.
I wrote Bloom an email after reading one of his tweets. He and I started corresponding two weeks after he first heard of Knausgaard. He was in a hotel lobby in Chiayi, in southern Taiwan, reading the international edition of the New York Times when, he says, “I fell off my chair reading that BS. my media radar went way off the dial.” (All of Bloom’s quotes are taken from emails sent to me, and they have been left unedited. He loves “ATOMIC TYPOS,” which “spellcheck cannot see,” and since they characterize his emails, I’ve left them as they arrived.)
By the time we started exchanging emails, Bloom had already tried contacting more than 50 reporters in the United States and the United Kingdom. He sent emails; he sent tweets. He posted comments on individual news stories, and longer blog posts where he could. No one would listen, so when I first wrote him, Bloom responded with over a dozen emails in less than an hour.
I was overwhelmed, but intrigued. A few of the emails preserved my subject lines, but some arrived with all-caps announcements, like telegrams with urgent information: “NORWAY PHD TELLS ME” or “CASEY I FORGOT.” Others had dozens of words in the subject line, too long for the inbox preview. Still others came from a different sender called “Internet Blooming”; those were the tweets he’d saved and organized into ascending levels of evidence.
Somewhere in that initial deluge, Bloom told me that he loved Knausgaard’s work. Why spend so many hours trying to debunk positive press about an author you admire? “It’s a cute lie,” Bloom wrote, “I like good white lies.” But it bothered him that publications, like the New York Times and the New Yorker, ran “this unfounded unfacchecdk PR white lie without fact checking it.”
Yet after weeks with no success debunking the claim, I asked Bloom what made him so sure it wasn’t true. “i immediately FELT INSIDE MY RADAR BRAIIN that the claim of K-free days was TOO GOOD TO BE TRUE,” Bloom wrote. “i mean, think about it, as i did, the entire nation mandagtes K-free days in govt offices and factories? No way. NORWAY is free democracy. so i KNEW right away this was a fake claim.”
But why did a man, a blogger in Taiwan, I learned, care about something that, even if it were a lie, seemed so inconsequential? “I energized by the seaerch for truth,” Bloom wrote me. It wasn’t unusual, he said, to send a thousand tweets, and get 10 replies; he was annoyed, though, when journalists blocked him or media outlets removed his comments from their sites. Bloom said he spent two hours or so each night trying to debunk the Knausgaard-free days, which was “fun and relaxing.” Debunking was a “hobby, like jogging or cycling.”
When I asked Bloom about his hobby, he remembered how in 2008 he spent three months debunking Herman Rosenblat’s holocaust memoir, The Angel at the Fence. Bloom read an Associated Press story about the memoir, and then started contacting academics and reporters trying to get them to investigate what he thought was most definitely exaggerated or fabricated. After months of cold calling, Bloom says he found an audience first with Deborah Lipstadt, a professor at Emory University, and then with Ken Waltzer, a professor at Michigan State University who was writing a book about the Buchenwald concentration camp, and Gabriel Sherman, a reporter at the New Republic who had previously written about challenges to Ishmael Beah’s child-soldier memoir A Long Way Gone.*
In 2012, he fought for a correction from the New York Times International Weekly, after the supplement, which reaches 5.5 million global readers in 35 papers across four continents, printed a false quotation from Jean-Paul Sartre. A week later, the paper wrote: “The correct quote is ‘Hell is other people,’ not ‘Hell is other people at breakfast.’” Bloom had first read the erroneous quotation in the Atlantic, and it had bothered him ever since. When he saw it in the New York Times, he cared enough to request the correction.
Bloom loved journalism, and he cared about the truth. Wasn’t that enough?
I put aside Bloom's emails and started digging. In March of 2012, Jon Henley wrote an 1,800-word profile of Knausgaard for the Guardian. Midway through, he observed: “Norwegian companies were obliged to declare ‘Knausgaard-free days’, when the subject was banned.”
It was, by my research, one of the first mentions of these prohibitions against speaking of the novelist’s work. I contacted Henley about his profile, and within a few minutes he produced a press release from Random House, Knausgaard’s U.K. publisher, dated January 26, 2012. Various bullet points in the release outlined how “hugely controversial” Knausgaard’s work had been in Norway, how the author was being sued by family members, and how the book “spent 30 weeks on the Norwegian bestseller lists.”
Beneath all those was this: “Companies in Norway actually declared ‘Knausgaard free’ days which meant that talking about him and his book was banned at work, such was the obsession.” As if to seal the deal, the last of these bullet points read: “Karl Ove speaks perfect English and looks like a rock star!” Exclamation mark and all.
Sue Amaradivakara, the Random House publicist who sent the press release, no longer worked for the publisher. When I finally found her, she could not access her Random House email archive but assumed the Knausgaard-free days claim would have come from the author’s Norwegian literary agent, the name of whom she couldn’t remember. Later she told me to contact Harvill Secker, the imprint of Random House that handled Knausgaard’s publicity.
Bloom had already tried contacting Harvill Secker on Twitter, and he’d sent me an exchange they’d had in June. At one point, Harvill Secker had responded to him, saying "let Nordic myths be,” and then, after he persisted: "Benign rumor in Norway, I suspect." When Bloom forwarded me these tweets, he prefaced them with an appropriately outraged, "WTF?"
Bethan Jones, publicity director at Harvill Secker in the U.K., first wrote me at the end of June, and said she’d contacted Knausgaard's Norwegian publisher, Oktober, about finding press clippings to prove the existence of Knausgaard-free days. When I wrote twice more to see if Jones had been provided any such clips, she had not.
She emphasized the volume of press about the author’s work and in our final email exchange, wrote: “As I said previously we, and all Knausgaard's international publishers, were told about the Knausgaard-free days in good faith by Oktober.”
Archipelago Books, which publishes Knausgaard’s work in the United States, also deferred to Oktober. Kendall Storey, an associate editor and publicist at Archipelago, tried to press Oktober, too, but after two weeks wrote: “They really believe that the article does exist; however, there is just so much Knausgaard related press in Norwegian outlets that it has been a nightmare to track down.”
Bloom was frustrated by the delay and so was I. Researching the Knausgaard-free days had become my way to "relax," too, and for an hour or so every night I’d go down the K-hole. I tried various versions of "ban," "prohibition," "outlawed," "forbidden," and "Knausgaard" on Google Translate. I searched Twitter for Norwegian tweets, the only ones of which I found were incredulous about these "K-free days."
I wrote to a friend who had written about Knausgaard. He suspected the claim was false and so hadn’t included it in his piece. At the same time, I had another friend who was traveling in Norway. I asked if she would ask around about the Knausgaard-free days. She hadn’t heard of them, so what I was asking her to investigate took some explanation, but very quickly she wrote back with a resounding no. No one she asked in Norway had ever heard of such a thing.**
But Knausgaard was popular, one journalist my friend asked wanted us to know: She sent photographs of the future Queen of Norway lining up for the novelist the way British royals queue for cricket or tennis stars; she also remembered that Norwegian Elle had ranked Knausgaard Norway’s sexiest man a few years before. His following, this journalist said, could only be compared to the "teenage hysteria" over Justin Bieber or One Direction.
All of which was unbelievable for a novelist, but none of which made me believe there were ever Knausgaard-free days. After all, no one bans gossip of Bieber or One Direction; no American office forbids talk of the Superbowl or the World Cup, much less Jonathan Franzen or Donna Tartt. So I went back to contacting publicists and agents.
In the meantime, Bloom became impatient. At one point, despite announcing that he’d be without access to the Internet or a telephone for 30 days while on vacation, he wrote with an "urgent update" about forthcoming op-eds in the Washington Post and the New York Times and "blogging all those emails yu sent me earlier about the story."
It was, as I admitted then and had several times before, frustrating to be stonewalled by agents and publicists, publishers, and literary agencies. I had given them all more time because there was, as I had seen, a lot of Norwegian press to sort through. I told Bloom this was a good story, but like a lot of good stories, it was taking longer than expected.
What I didn’t tell Bloom was that I was starting to worry it might never be finished. How do you prove something never happened? How can you find documentation of something that doesn’t exist? Large swaths of our lives are still undocumented online. So even though I couldn’t find tweets or blog posts, much less digitized articles or stories, did that really mean Knausgaard-free days were an invention of a clever publicist? Wasn’t it still true that Knausgaard was an international sensation?
And what did it matter? I’d long decided Bloom was a more interesting story than Knausgaard, whose own work documented every inch of his own life. Perhaps one day the novelist would even write an epilogue to My Struggle about the experience of publishing the first six volumes and address the outlandish claim himself. Maybe he’d even explain in well-wrought prose that there wasn’t really a ban, only a request at one specific company where one of his many disgruntled relatives worked not to talk about the books.
Whether or not I ever found proof of the Knausgaard-free days in even a single office in Oslo, I was fascinated by Bloom. Dan or Danny or Daniel—all names he uses—is 65, though he assured me he looks like he’s 45 and feels like he’s 25. He grew up in Massachusetts, and he’s been a daily reader of newspapers since he was eight. He studied literature and French at Tufts, then had a migratory career in journalism.
He worked as a freelance cartoonist at the Washington Star and the Washington Post, where he first interviewed for a job as an obituary writer with Ben Bradlee, who Bloom says was "very friendly and avuncular," though didn’t give him the job. He edited a weekly paper in Juneau, Alaska, then worked as a copy editor and reporter in Japan; he moved to Taiwan to work at the Taipei Times for two years, and now freelances and teaches English part-time at a local college. His current obsession is "cli-fi," a genre that might otherwise be considered science fiction, but which Bloom says can galvanize readers into action against climate change.
Bloom also wrote a children’s book, Bubbie and Zadie Come to My House: A Story of Hanukkah, a copy of which he told me resides at the White House, a gift to President Obama three years ago by a rabbi from Virginia. The story, of grandparents who visit every Jewish child on the first night of Hanukkah, led one Amazon reviewer to write: “Daniel Bloom is the Bing Crosby of American Jews!”
He cares so deeply about debunking that he devotes hours every night to it. He didn’t just prod journalists; he did his own investigating, contacting academics and agents, publishers and publicists. He tweeted at anyone who mentioned Knausgaard. He emailed anyone he could find who had written, edited, or posted an article mentioning the claim. He was relentless. Even when I assured him I hadn’t abandoned the story, he’d write me a few more times to make sure.
I think I might have been the one to introduce words like "crusade" and "conspiracy" into our exchange, but it was Bloom who referred to "smoking guns." Seven weeks of searching, and neither of us had found the smoking gun. We both had our suspicions, but the "Nordic myth" seemed to be going strong.
And not sure of how you disprove something that had come to seem so obviously untrue, I gave the publishers all one final chance to produce evidence, and then wrote my editor with a draft. I worried about something Dan had written me weeks before: "i hope your piece wont end up mocking me, criticicize me okay, but i hope you won't end up mocking me for being a hyper engergtic gadfly."
How could I? Even though he sent me too many emails and even though I felt like he started to accuse me of being part of the Knausgaard Conspiracy, I admired Dan a great deal. He had told me over and over again that he’s "a pure truth seeker." By which he meant he wasn’t trying to promote his own writing: "i am not not plugging my blog or looking to get traffice, i have no career to boost or PHD promote if this goes viral."
He cares deeply about journalism, and, in particular, a few newspapers and magazines whose standards he admires. It doesn’t matter if it’s a fabricated quotation from a French philosopher or a fake Holocaust memoir, Bloom is equally determined to debunk any untruth he sees printed. So while I had come to doubt Knausgaard, I had come to trust Bloom.
Maybe some office somewhere in Oslo did ban talk of Knausgaard’s work. Maybe some boss did declare a Knausgaard-free day and it got talked about often enough that by the time it reached the shores of the United Kingdom it was a few days and by the time it reached the shores of the United States it was a few days in a few offices. Or maybe Bloom is right and this is a white lie that got away.
*Update—July 21, 2014: We originally wrote that Herman Rosenblat’s holocaust memoir was titled The Apple at the Fence. It's called The Angel at the Fence.
**Update—July 21, 2014: We originally wrote that Casey's friend had not heard of Knausgaard. She has heard of the author, but she had not heard of Knausgaard-free days.