Here's a question: is the role of literature to be uplifting, or is literature a place where we explore the bleak and disturbing aspects of our time and place?

Answer: for a start, the 'role of literature' is a phrase I find rather chilling, as if writing might have a purpose that is dictated from outside the writer, from some moralising high ground, perhaps, or a government department, so that their words can be manipulated by others.

The role of a novelist is to write what they want to write or, to quote Zadie Smith, to write 'what they can write'. Whatever that is must excite and compel us in order to gratify the urge that drives us to dream away years of precious time, slowly filling exercise books with scribbles that might one day become a novel; time is the only commodity, and writing a novel is too time-consuming to be undertaken for any other reason. For most of us, financial reward can be discounted as a motive.

In writing what we 'can' write, some turn to the sunny side and produce comedy and romance, while others feel compelled to explore the bleak houses and back lanes of the time and place they inhabit. Some of us won't even be aware of going to such places, because our deepest fears and obsessions often filter into our writing in an unplanned manner. This is bound to happen, because a substantial part of what we turn out as fiction arises from the murky depths of the unconscious, where the background hum of thought is drowned out during waking hours by the noise of living. I suspect that this is why novelists write over and over about the same ideas, trying to understand and work them out. The Irish writer, Colm Toibin has remarked that it was John McGahern who taught him that it's okay to write repeatedly about the same things.

When thinking about writers who have taken us to the darkest places, Cormac McCarthy leapt instantly to mind. His book The Road takes the reader to the bleakest place imaginable and is unremittingly painful throughout, with a token nod towards the existence of some remnants of compassion towards the end. I had to take it in small doses, and thought at the time it was the most harrowing fiction I had ever read. But then, sitting down one morning over a cup of coffee, I opened a book someone had loaned me and by page ten I had come upon a scene so sickening that I had to stop reading and deal with my nausea.

The novel was Carry Me Down, by M J Hyland, and the scene involved a father and his eleven year old son killing a litter of kittens; the feelings it aroused were more immediate and physical than those sparked by The Road. And the reason that Carry Me Down seems altogether darker is that, while McCarthy shows us a future destination which is a definite possibility, Hyland shines her light on the horrors that are happening all around us right now. They're happening in the house next door, in our own house, perhaps.

What then is the role of literature? Woody Allen once said that 'if you knew for sure that one day the door was going to burst open and a man with a gun would come in and shoot you dead, you'd hardly be able to think about anything else.' This is indisputably true, yet most of us manage to banish the knowledge of our own mortality to the darkest, least-visited corners of our minds. Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Leave Me explores this phenomenon with subtle brilliance.

So the novelist who takes us into a dark corner and shows us something terrible is not trying to horrify, but rather offering a safe space to explore possibilities, confront the worst and maybe find a way to rationalise it. I'm still not sure about the role of literature - I only know that we need it, or we'll turn into turnips.