Book clinic: can you recommend modern fiction to replace my love of classics?

Francis Spufford and Michèle Roberts will satisfy a classical bent, or try going cold turkey with a graphic novel

Q: How can I wean myself off classics and on to something more contemporary?
Anna Morton, 49, Oxfordshire

A: Claire Armitstead, writer and critic, says:
There are three possible prescriptions for your addiction. The first is the methodone approach: find a substitute that satisfies, without actually feeding, the urge. Alan Hollinghurst writes in an elegant classical style about inheritance and ill-advised alliances, for all that they are predominantly gay. The Sparsholt Affair should do the trick, with its chronicle of art, love and shifting loyalties in the second half of the 20th century. It is, as one critic remarked, “embedded in tradition but entirely new in final effect”. If your taste veers towards the 18th century – replete with long dashes and semi-colons – Francis Spufford’s Golden Hill offers a deliriously funny pastiche that also bears its own witness to the birth of the New World. For a gentler remedy, try Michèle Roberts’s The Walworth Beauty, which evokes the spectre of Dickensian London through the story of a house and its centuries of residents, or Elizabeth Macneal’s The Doll Factory, a delicately drawn feminist art thriller involving the pre-Raphaelite brotherhood, taxidermy and wombats.

The second prescription is to take the analytical route on the basis that, by parsing your addiction, it will be easier to wean yourself off it. For long, rambling, punctuation-heavy sentences, try Salman Rushdie’s latest, Quichotte (in which junk TV stands in for the romances that addled the brains of Cervantes’s errant knight), or Lucy Ellmann’s Ducks, Newburyport, in which an Ohio housewife revisits her past in eight sentences (and 1,020 pages). Both are contenders for this year’s Booker prize, so you could find yourself a new classic. For stories of disputed inheritance and (possibly) ill-advised marriage, Tessa Hadley will see you right with the delicate humanism of her sibling drama The Past.

The third prescription is to go cold turkey. A graphic biography such as Alison Bechdel’s glorious Fun Home will present you with a whole new grammar: that of panels, colour palettes, gutters and bleeds. Or try some poetry: Ilya Kaminsky’s brilliant Deaf Republic is a timely story of a small community resisting political oppression – punctuated by sign language.

Submit your question to book clinic below or email


Claire Armitstead

The GuardianTramp

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