Zoe Williams is reading less fiction. She's free to do that, naturally. But, not content with exercising her choice of reading, she has decided to make a moral thesis of it:
When the news is so apocalyptic, and there is so much to understand, and a lot of it is quite basic..., it feels more than frivolous to read about made-up people. It feels unpatriotic. Or, to put it another way, it is like watching the telly when you have homework.
True, Williams does end by allowing that fiction that 'take(s) on big contemporary questions' can be useful in getting people to comprehend things, but as you can see, even this qualification is in the spirit of the main thesis. There are four things wrong with it - at least.
(1) If gaining understanding is the priority, why limit oneself to disparaging the reading of fiction? What about watching television programmes for entertainment, going to the movies, following sport, dancing, going on a picnic, and spending time chatting to your friends? It is a crabbed and miserable philosophy that says people may not sometimes enjoy themselves - and reading fiction is one of the things they do to enjoy themselves.
(2) Williams's argument rests on the implicit distinction that in fiction what we encounter is 'made-up', whereas non-fiction relays information about the real world. That is so crude a distinction as to be nearly worthless. From fiction you can learn important truths, and there's no shortage of books of non-fiction from which you will learn little or by which you will, indeed, be led astray.
(3) The qualification that fiction which is about big questions is to be given consideration as possibly worthy to rub shoulders with non-fiction is also a cramped view: it narrows the sphere of life. Fiction is about everything, and therefore anything; and no one needs Zoe Williams instructing them about what is of interest or importance in the world. An old man's consciousness while he lies dying, focused on his own life, his family? Is that big enough? It doesn't matter, if the fiction contains vivid insights, holds a reader's attention, moves, entertains.
(4) Since Williams's column is big on the understanding of economics, she might like to consider that in hard times reading fiction is a very inexpensive way for people to enhance their lives.
I don't know if this merits a separate (5), but Williams could read The Bookshop by Penelope Fitzgerald if she wants to remind herself how something can be both small and made-up and yet be an absolute human treasure. She could then look up the meaning of the word 'philistinism' and work to be forgiven for the philistinism of 'made-up'.