“I wonder if, before we were born, we were as afraid of life as we are now of death?”

Jay Williams

Say you’re a journalist. Your niche is writing true stories that inform a little, shock a lot, and ramp up the juices of your audience.

Nothing wrong with that, right?

Most of your readers live in a world where death, dismemberment, and disarray are common fare. Like the cliché says, if it bleeds, it leads. America is awash in guns, gun violence, gun lovers, gun victims, and gun stories. We read ‘em, love ‘em, hate ‘em, and can’t get enough of them.

Are there ethical boundaries at the end of all those barrels?

Say you’re a novelist and you’ve written a thoughtful essay. Richard Russo’s[1] essay prompted this blog. It was published in the Sunday New York Times,[2] headlined, “How Could I?” Mr. Russo’s subtitle—When a novelist writes about a school shooting, tough questions arise—was provoked by a woman who asked, How Could You? The woman was obviously distraught. Her question was, “How could a writer trade on the grief and loss of people like her for money?” The woman was from nearby Littleton, a town devastated by a school shooting at Columbine High School two years before Russo was asked to speak at a book signing in Denver. Throughout his essay, that single question urges writers to think before posting or publishing. His essay reminds us that our audience may be in a different place when they read us than we were when we wrote to them. Some will always turn out to be unknown, unknowable, innocent victims of the unintended hurt in what we write.

Mr. Russo’s wonderful book, Empire Falls,”[3] has a climatic ending,[4] and that ending no doubt layered misery over grief for the woman from Littleton. It is an unproven, but also undeniable thesis that one school shooting begs for another one. The first two are models for more of the same, ad infinitum. Today, no one doubts we will have more gun violence in schools. It no longer surprises anyone. Some connect gun violence to gun availability. Others contest and say guns don’t kill people; people kill people. These and other deadlier questions face journalists and novelists. Journalists have answers—the public’s right to know everything. Novelists have unanswerable questions. As Richard Russo put it in his essay, “All we have is moral imagination, which over time, can help heal wounds, but also has a nasty habit of opening them.”

We can all hope that novelists continue to ask themselves, “Should I?” Should we draw ethical lines between our chapters? Should we continue to insist that our children are more important than our guns?  Mr. Russo got it right in his essay. “A 2018 Empire Falls would have to be set in a tribal America that has stopped listening, that may have little interest in a novelist’s musings.”

His advice to the writing world is profound. “Kindness and moral imagination. We must put our trust in these. And in the fact that they never go completely out of fashion.”

[1] Richard Russo’s most recent book is “The Destiny Thief: Essays on Writing, Writers and Life.”

[2] July 29, 2018, NYT Book Review, p. 20.

[3] Empire Falls is a 2001 novel written by Richard Russo. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction in 2002, and follows the story of Miles Roby in a fictional, small blue-collar town in Maine and the people, places, and the past surrounding him, as manager of the Empire Grill diner.

[4] One of the characters, John Voss, an introverted student at the fictional high school, is tormented by students. So, he brings a gun to school and shoots several fictional students.