“Death of the Author”: Lovecraft vs. Jemisin

While reading about H.P. Lovecraft and his racist and anti-Semitic beliefs in class, I was struck with the memory of a concept that I learned about in the first literature course that I took at Geneseo. “Death of the Author”  is an essay written by Roland Barthes in the mid-nineteenth century about his concept of the same name. As a short summary of Barthes’s points, he argues that the consumption of art does not need to be tainted or even affected at all by the beliefs and intentions of its creator. Instead, individual readers can exert their own agency over the work.

In the context of Lovecraft’s writing, “Death of the Author” can be an important facet of a reader’s experience. Instead of a preoccupation with the racism which may have been infused—intentionally or not—into his horror stories, the reader can separate the text from its author. As standalone material, readers then have the opportunity to infuse the text with their own histories and beliefs, and interpret the writing on a much more personal level.

My attention was then diverted to The Fifth Season. As useful as Barthes’s concept is in readings of Lovecraft or other similarly problematic authors, is it useful or even appropriate if applied to Jemisin’s work? I would argue not. In the following excerpt from an interview with Jemisin, she explains the inspiration behind the Fulcrum and the systems of oppression that are present throughout the novel.

At the Fulcrum, they learn how to control their ability. If they learn how to control it well enough, then they become Imperial Orogenes, and they are dispatched to various places on the continent to seal volcanoes and help to stave off the coming of the next Fifth Season. They are trusted to do this because they’ve learned how to control their power, they’ll never kill anybody by accident, that kind of thing.

But, if they don’t learn it well enough, they’re simply killed. The system cannot abide those who are not good at learning, or those who are not obedient. And so, it’s how a lot of systems of oppression work. It was also inspired partly by, you probably heard, reservation schools and schools to which indigenous peoples on multiple continents—this was not just a North American thing, but also Australian and so forth, where the children of indigenous people were snatched away and sent off to these places where they weren’t permitted to use their own language, and where they were forced to acculturate to white society—because it almost always happened in European colonized places—forced to acculturate on pain of death, and in some cases . . . well, it wasn’t overtly said that it was on pain of death, but in actual practicality, a lot of kids died in these schools. So, there were a lot of influences in this, but I was thinking about the ways in which oppression tends to work. It is not always a case of an evil overlord coming in and saying, “Mwahaha, I’m going to make you my slave.” In a lot of cases, you’ve got people complicit in the system who are part of it themselves. The Fulcrum is run by orogenes, and you see that it is not a kind or gentle place despite that.

If Barthes’s “death of the author” was applied to Jemisin’s work here, the connections and allegories that she creates between her work of fiction and the real, tangible world can also be easily ignored. While a reading of The Fifth Season can be enjoyable without context, the loss of its implications means the loss of profound lessons and social/societal commentary that Jemisin has provided for us as an aid to our outward understanding. I think that this loss would be devastating not only to the art that she has created, but also to the potential consumers of Jemisin’s work.

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