“The Rut”: Writing, Publishing, and Horrible Self-Loathing

The fruitless pursuit of perfection is a source of incredible suffering, whether it be in the context of gaining knowledge, mastering a skill, or creating a true masterpiece. Max Penn’s “The Rut” is a piece of e-literature which very effectively demonstrates the frustration inherent in attempting to make something utterly perfect. At the beginning of the piece, the viewer/reader is presented with a nondescript-looking, blank-covered brown book. When the book is opened with a click, the viewer/reader is treated to the inside of the cover and the title page of the book. Another click, and the book closes, but the cover changes somehow. It might now have writing on the front, or a few notes may have appeared to the side. These things are evidence that the book is being edited. When the viewer/reader takes a look inside, the first pages have changed, as well. A new title, or author bio, or a doodle, will grace the pages. Another click, and it will be replaced by something else.

The book and the webpage are also enveloped in an effect that simulates watching a damaged reel of black-and-white film, providing a sense of motion and the passage of time. The music is also a frenetic loop, played backwards. The sense conveyed by these two elements of the piece is that there is a lot of energy, a lot of movement, and a lot of time being  wasted in editing the piece of the book that shouldn’t really matter. However, to Mr. Penn, who calls himself the author of the fictional book, nothing else can be done until the beginning details are just right. Nobody will ever know what the book is about, what themes it addresses, if it’s basically comedic or tragic, because the author cannot allow himself to settle.

Furthermore, Penn really beats himself up about his lack of success as an author. It is implied that he has never really published a solid book. Seeming to fear failing because of a lack of endorsement, Penn invents blurbs to put on the inside of the book. These blurbs are erased in future incarnations of the title page, however, seemingly because he fears being found out as a liar. In any case, though, the pure willingness to invent blurbs says that Penn, or at least the fictional version of Max Penn invented for the purpose of starring in the piece doesn’t believe his work can speak for itself. Another instance of this self-doubt can be seen when he attempts to doodle butterflies on the inside of the cover in several different iterations, but eventually ends up scrapping them all. They’re pretty good doodles. I mean, butterflies might be a bit cliche, but again, we have no idea what the guy is writing about. Butterflies could be the best possible imagery for the novel. But he just decides to get rid of these drawings which contribute pretty awesomely to his book, and he makes these revisions completely on his own. Never once in the piece does Penn give the reader/viewer a reason to believe that he is consulting anyone else in the making of this cover. He never says that “George liked/didn’t like this” or “Susan was crazy about this.” The only opinion he cares about is his own, and his fantasy for how the cover will end up can never be met. So he’s doomed to stay in a loop, which is exactly what the piece does. It loops through a sequence of different illustrations, blurbs, bios, etc.

What do people think about how the form of this piece addresses its themes, or anything else?

  5 comments for ““The Rut”: Writing, Publishing, and Horrible Self-Loathing

  1. sarahjoy
    February 24, 2014 at 9:38 am

    I barely got to click through the different versions of covers and title pages, when a link appeared on the left inside page, linking to “the rest of” M. Penn’s 3000 word biography. Rather than a biography though, we find a long collection of journal entries. In the first few, Penn talks about moths, a notebook, and “My observed nightmares from the r-/ less rejection.” These ideas seem to tie this writing with the overall piece of the Rut, but as the entries progress, it seems more and more unrelated. Instead, it reads as multiple journal entries documenting different days, experiences, and thoughts. What’s really peculiar about it though is that the writing is incomplete, missing both the beginnings and ends of each line. This creates a really weird, incomplete reading experience. For me, it did a couple of things. First, it suggested that even when we do have all of the lines, and all of the story, we still don’t fully know what’s happening. Especially in literature formed like a journal such as his “biography” seems to be. It’s incredibly long and difficult to get through (I didn’t even make it halfway down the scroll bar) because of its haphazard feeling. Second, it made me think realize how much information I bring to reading a text. There were instances where we get a few context clues, and despite the lack of words, we are able to know what’s happening. For instance, there’s an entry where Penn talks about a girl he knows who

    “has sex with an
    asizes about being raped (and she wa
    ough not by me before you ask).”

    Scrolling through more of the page though, things seem to get less coherent, and by the end of the document, letters are missing. The last line suggests “My pen is out of ink.” I’m not sure how this “biography” correlates to the ever changing cover and title page. There is a bit of irony, in Penn not being able to start his book, but then writing so much in his journal, creating a substantial body of work. And maybe its lack of beginnings and ends of lines relates to how it’s hard to start (and end) a book, but easy to think of something to happen within? What does everyone else think?

    PS. The “biography” is actually 16,000+ words, totaling in its incompleteness, 88 pages of Word.

    • Dylan Tibert
      March 24, 2014 at 1:26 pm

      As an Anthropology major it brings me great joy to see someone engaging with the degree to which perspective produces understanding, instead of approaching understanding as a thing to be accessed and inherently tethered to the piece itself. There is no definitive narrative here, but it accesses symbols and ideas that are recognizable as a certain way of thinking and scenarios that are are commonly born from this very Western spin on the creation of the Western conceptualization of a book. For me, the most engaging element of this piece was how powerfully the narrative of the writing process could be evoked with little-to-no reference to the text itself. As I read it, the piece was about an author repeatedly gazing at the face of an incomplete text that is supposed to represent his ability as an author throughout the writing process. Every time he sits down to work on it, the work and his struggle is embodied by the cover. During his struggle, born from uncertainty about the direction of the text itself and the more superficial, practically-informed context of producing a work that people will want to engage with on a broad level, he hyperfocuses on the cover and title page of the book as if a proper paratext alone will make the text more complete and the body itself less difficult to write. This hyperfocus on immediate presentation has him dealing more with this entity of “his book” as he is agonizing about how it will be initially broken down at a glance, and is indicative of the pressures an author might face apart from the intrinsic production of a standalone text. His frustration transforms this piece into somewhat of a critical deconstruction of these pressures, and to me deconstruction is always sexy and interesting.

  2. kmunnis
    February 24, 2014 at 1:16 pm

    I honestly felt like I was reading a story that left it up to me to fill in the details. That in The RUT an man has an idea for a book, but the task of writing it is too overwhelming, so he starts with manageable things like the title and presentation of the book. From here he gets obsessive over the title , it changes from Colours of Wind, Water, Unknown Colours, Hear of Butterflies, and Lepidoptera; which leads the us to believe that the potential book is about colors, nature, change and possibly butterflies- but we will never know because he never takes that leap into the writing process, and instead continues to go over the little things, and indulge in fantasies of having reviews by the Times and a page for other books he also hasn’t written. Until he has this book cover, an unattainable fantasy of fame, and loathes himself because of his own narcissism.

  3. asanixay
    February 24, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    This form of electronic literature is interesting, yet confusing. There seems to be no story to it, as it is constantly changing. It gets one to wonder what should it be about instead of asking what is it. As said in its title, the book seems to represent the author being unable to publish a book. The book and its contents are constantly changing, which could represent the author’s inability to stick with an idea and work on it. This form of interactive fiction can frustrate the viewer, which may be what the author wants them to experience. Aside from representing the author’s frustration, The Rut could also be testing the viewer’s creative skills. As the book is “unfinished”, the viewer might get the desire to finish it themselves.

  4. Grace Draper
    March 31, 2014 at 2:20 pm

    I think RUT is something we can all relate to, which is what makes it successful. The idea that all work is unfinished is something that Professor Whalen talked about in regards to our creative projects, and in peer review I came across a piece that, like RUT, simulates the creative thought process. I can see this being more effective if bigger name writers were to publish something similar. Seeing their working process could possibly be encouraging to other writers, as RUT is, showing that everyone’s process is different and all writers hit a rut or a hard spot when creating. The way RUT is constantly changing, as well as the inability to move forward until something is perfect, can also be a critique on writing and the writing process, showing how writers focus on such minute details when the reader may not see them as important to their personal experience.

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