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Elizabeth Sandifer

Elizabeth Sandifer created Eruditorum Press. She’s not really sure why she did that, and she apologizes for the inconvenience. She currently writes Last War in Albion, a history of the magical war between Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. She used to write TARDIS Eruditorum, a history of Britain told through the lens of a ropey sci-fi series. She also wrote Neoreaction a Basilisk, writes comics these days, and has ADHD so will probably just randomly write some other shit sooner or later. Support Elizabeth on Patreon.


  1. ReNeilssance
    September 19, 2013 @ 12:57 am

    Always enjoy seeing references to Neil Tennant's comics career.


  2. David Anderson
    September 19, 2013 @ 3:30 am

    I wonder if that's really what Aristotle meant. The Iliad and the Odyssey are at least as tightly plotted as most modern novels. Maybe he was thinking of epics that are now lost to us.
    I think the distinction is a better characterisation of pulp than it is of literary fiction. To the Lighthouse and Waiting for Godot have no real ending; while any hack novel of detective fiction or fantasy quest trilogy does. See Kermode's Sense of an Ending about literary attempts to evade the final wrapping up of plot threads.


  3. Daibhid C
    September 19, 2013 @ 4:16 am

    I dunno. Look at Phil's explanation of pulp "event plotting":

    There’s no inherent reason why “The Last Man on Earth” has to reach Earth proper when it does, as opposed to adding another two or three planets to Gaunt’s arrival on Earth, nor, for that matter, is there a reason one or more events of the story couldn’t be excised.

    It seems to me you can pretty easily replace "The Last Man on Earth" with "The Odyssey", "Gaunt" with "Odysseus", "Earth" with "Ithica" and "planets" with "islands".

    Detective stories have endings but I don't think they're endings in the Aristotlian sense. The main character does not get a resolution, they just move on to the next detective story.

    (Yes, there's The Final Problem and Curtain. But one of those didn't stick, and the other was left to be published once there could definitely be no more Poirot stories.)


  4. Theonlyspiral
    September 19, 2013 @ 6:15 am

    I just want you to know Phil I'm still reading and enjoying. But I don't have anything meaningful to say about this hence the silence.

    Anyways: Looking forward to Book 3!


  5. Adam Riggio
    September 19, 2013 @ 8:06 am

    Of course, we forget today that even though we now call To the Lighthouse and Waiting for Godot great modern works of literature, they were incredibly controversial at the time of their publications and performances precisely because they broke Aristotelian rules of structure. Today, we consider experimentation and novelty of technique and character a reason to recommend an artwork as ambitious and high-quality. That's only because we come after a generation of experimental visionaries who made that possible.

    Even now, new writers aren't usually encouraged to experiment. Most MFA programs in creative writing focus on creating tightly plotted short stories in following Aristotle's and Chekhov's maxims. Breaking the rules, experimenting, and being different is still frowned upon.

    As for the nature of the epic, I remember a long discussion we had in the TARDIS Eruditorum (maybe about a year ago; I forget which post) during the Wilderness Years discussing Doctor Who's lack of suitability for epic storytelling. The post focussed on the tropes of large action set pieces, grand thematic statements, huge violent confrontations of armies and enemies. Actually, I think it might have been Death Comes to Time, with such cartoonishly stupid fist-pumping moments like "Because I'm the Brigadier! Protector of Earth!" or some bullshit like that, contrasting that idiotic theatricality with the understated moment in Battlefield. The destroyer of worlds, who's been set up as this enormous, horrifying, world-shattering monster, asks if this is Earth's greatest champion. The Brig responds, "Probably not. But I do the best I can." I remember Phil trying to contrast the empty bombast of Death Comes to Time with the quieter, and more moving way Doctor Who typically has of dealing with its plots.

    We ended up in this ridiculous tangent about how Star Wars was nothing like the Iliad, which completely missed the point in favour of some kind of epic originalism.


  6. Elizabeth Sandifer
    September 19, 2013 @ 8:28 am

    I'd also argue that taking Aristotelean structure and just doing the opposite is still, by and large, working under Aristotelean structure.


  7. David Anderson
    September 19, 2013 @ 10:32 am

    Odysseus only sets foot on three islands in the course of the Odyssey: Calpyso's island at the beginning, Phaeacia, and Ithaca at the end. (All the stuff about Cyclops, Lotus Eaters, Circe, Sirens, etc etc, is a comparatively brief flashback told through Odysseus' narration to his Phaeacian hosts.)

    I don't think it's fair to describe modernism as taking Aristotelian structure and just doing the opposite.

    It's obviously harder to write a readable story that evades Aristotle and Chekhov's maxims. But it's also harder to write a listenable pop song that doesn't use tonal key harmony or to make a viewable painting that's not strictly representational. It says something about our attitude to the various arts, although I'm not sure what, that while even pop is no longer wedded to tonal harmony even literary fiction writing is taught as if modernism never really happened.
    That sounds as if I want to object to the very idea of Aristotelian structure. I don't. I'm just rather questioning any hard and fast demarcation of the literary from the non-literary. I do think Philip's right about what kinds of storytelling the infinitely extensible serial format of pulp or comics closes off. (The problem with soap as an artform is that they attempt those kinds of storytelling in a serial genre that makes them too difficult.)


  8. Nyq Only
    September 19, 2013 @ 10:41 am

    Knowing what the rules are and intentionally breaking some or most of them is part of effective design.


  9. BerserkRL
    September 19, 2013 @ 11:06 am

    more straight adventure when he did Tarzan

    Though not exclusively; Tarzan rides a triceratops in Tarzan the Terrible (before the Doctor did), gets zapped by a shrink ray in Tarzan and the Ant Men, and travels to the Earth's core in, well, Tarzan at the Earth's Core. Plus he has a cameo in The Eternal Savage, which is either about time travel or about reincarnation, depending on how one interprets the plot.

    If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall

    I've seen two versions of Chekhov's rule cited: "if you hang a gun on the wall early on, you must fire it later" and "if you fire a gun later, you must hang it on the wall early on." (I've always thought the 2nd rule was more important.) Do we have any evidence as to whether Chekhov said both these things or just one of them?

    These rules have loosened since Aristotle’s time

    Actually they first tightened. The only unity Aristotle insisted on was action. The unities of time and place were added by the French classicists. (He does say that tragedy tries to keep within a single day, though it's not clear whether that's prescriptive or descriptive; it's still well short of real time anyway.)

    Aristotle’s prose, which is, in practice, merely the adapted lecture notes taken by his students at the Lyceum

    No, Aristotle's texts are thought to be his own notes for his lectures, not the notes of his students. The only Aristotelean work that is thought to be perhaps the result of student notes (unless it is just completely spurious) is the Magna Moralia.

    Aristotle also wrote more polished works, dialogues, but these are all lost apart from some fragments. Cicero, no mean judge in such matters, praises the "golden flow" of their style.

    Another way of framing this is that the epic has multiple plots as opposed to tragedy’s single-minded focus

    Though Aristotle does think a loose kind of unity of action applies to the best epics, such as Homer’s (where despite all the digressions there is a causal sequence from the dispute between Achilles and Agamemnon at the beginning of the Iliad to the death of Hector at the end), whereas bad epic poets think "all happening to the same character" is enough to unify an epic; Ari contrasts the non-Homeric Heracleid, whose incidents are unified simply by all involving Heracles, with Homer's Odyssey, which he says has more unity than just involving Odysseus). I fear he would be saddened by Doctor Who. (Unless he regarded each episode rather than the whole show as the relevant work of art.)

    Proper and literary fiction works according to broadly Aristotelean lines, with tight unity of plot that builds to a definitive ending. The sort of fiction that just goes on and on, meanwhile, is largely frowned upon

    I found this claim surprising. In my experience, tightly constructed plot tends to be somewhat looked down upon (the "well-made play") by literary critics; sprawling plotless stories where the focus in on style and characterisation more than on cause and effect (e.g. Proust) tend to be more popular with them than with general audiences, no?


  10. Adam Riggio
    September 19, 2013 @ 11:52 am

    You make a good point, David A. I'd only add that it isn't so much that there really is any strict demarcation of literary from non-literary, but that this demarcation is widely believed to exist. And it is widely believed to have the moral significance of separating good or artistically worthy literature/comics/theatre/film from bad or trashy.


  11. Adam Riggio
    September 19, 2013 @ 11:58 am

    I don't think the "fiction that just goes on and on" Phil refers to is the Proust model, but the Spider-Man model. Issue after issue after issue with some self-contained episodes and stories within, but which are part of a series that has no thematic point other than "Pick up next month's issue for another thrilling adventure of . . . . "


  12. BerserkRL
    September 19, 2013 @ 4:32 pm

    Aristotle himself says that advice in the human realm usually has to take the form of "for the most part" rather than "necessarily and always." I reckon he'd grant that his advice about plot structure falls under this principle too.


  13. Josiah Rowe
    September 19, 2013 @ 6:42 pm

    Nice dry irony in the caption to Fig. 78.


  14. Anton B
    September 19, 2013 @ 9:39 pm

    I laughed out loud.


  15. David Anderson
    September 20, 2013 @ 1:29 am

    I don't think Aristotle objected to any given dramatist writing series of plays based on characters in the same family. So I think he'd certainly take the unit of Doctor Who to be the story. The fact that you then put the same character in a different story is fine so long as that new story has its own beginning and end.
    (In Search of Lost Time isn't actually plotless: it has a definite end that it's working towards, namely Marcel writes a novel identical to the novel you're reading.)


  16. Henry R. Kujawa
    September 20, 2013 @ 9:56 am

    Rules are to be followed or ignored at the discretion of the writer. The work reflects the writer's personality and outlook. This way, each writer's works can be enjoyed or not as a matter of personal taste.

    Of course, some people simply have more skill or less skill…


  17. Matthew Blanchette
    September 20, 2013 @ 10:08 am

    Oh my god! Grant Morrison WITH HAIR!!! :-O


  18. GeneralNerd
    January 13, 2014 @ 1:11 pm

    Makes me wonder what Alan Moore looks like without a beard.


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