Nonfiction exists as a category, of course. I'm reading Roger Crowley's Empires of the Sea, about the 16th century struggle in the Mediterranean between the Hapsburgs and the Ottomans, and have no reason to doubt Crowley's account of the siege of Malta or the fall of Cyprus.
But personal memoirs are also fall into "nonfiction". That is starting to seem much more dubious. Many supposed memoirs (James Frey, Holocaust memoirs of being raised by wolves or fed by girls throwing apples across the fence, J T LeRoy, etc.) have recently been shown to be partly or largely fictional. I don't think the truth-quality of memoirs has dropped. I think the revelation of their falseness has been made easier.
One of my favorite blogs, prairiemary, recently mentioned something that has been out for a few years that, I will admit, did disturb me. On Thursday she mentioned that the opening of Annie Dillard's memoir, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, where her tomcat comes through her window at night with bloody feet and leaves bloody pawprints on the bare skin of her chest didn't happen to her, but to a male student of hers, who gave her permission to use it as her own.
That book is wonderfully written, but I'd always doubted the "some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood". My body? Covered? Some mornings? I'd buy some blood on a nightgown once, and some dead animals (as Mary mentions) at other times. The most common way memoirists distort events is to take the occasional or unique and make it habitual and characteristic of a period.
So: did I "always doubt" it? Or did it just occur to me, thinking back? Here's the real problem of truth-in-memoir. Even I can't quite be sure.
Now I know it didn't happen to Dillard. And, most likely, it didn't happen to her student either, at least not exactly as described. And how voluntary was the transfer of the story from student to teacher?
Whenever something like this comes out, there are those who say it doesn't matter, that they responded to the quality of the prose, or the psychological truth. I can never figure out what these people are talking about.
I tell lies. That's what my books are. They are not true. They didn't happen, and, in fact, could not happen. I like to think that there is quality prose and psychological truth in what I write.
But it matters if something happened, or if it didn't. The Turkish fleet really was repulsed at Malta, and really did conquer Cyprus. Discovering that the dramatic defense of the fortress of St. Elmo at Malta was a fictional creation intended to boost the spirit of a beleaguered Europe would meaningfully change our perception of 16th century history.
Maybe that doesn't matter to some people. It does to me.