Caitlin Merrett King libraries
Photo: Caitlin Merrett King

7am, alone and no good, I drift backwards along the dingy walkway lined with proud, pick-hammered columns through a flurry of workers striding headlong and hypnotised towards The City. A man carrying a long bone-handled brolly pushes past me running, I presume, for the bus, a look of stricken panic smeared across his face as he darts a look behind him, towards me, then away while the other workers troop on unphased. A figure in a long chestnut trench coat loiters ahead peering over the edge of the walkway onto the kempt grass of the private gardens below where two lovers in sequined outfits are fused under the rusty canopy of a beech tree. Gravity’s holding me back! I turn and call to the figure as I’m pulled away, a grand door opening slowly in the pocked wall behind me. I slowly peel off my black leather gloves and thin woollen scarf discarding them into the garden’s rectangular pool below, its green waters frothing slightly. I don’t want to talk about the way that it was, you’re holdin’ me back!, they cry with a glance as they ascend skywards scaling a grey column. In this world, it’s just us! I cry out in anguish as I sink faster and deeper towards the open door, beyond which a dark, vibrating nothing… [1]


In 1945, in an article for The Tribune, George Orwell discussed the reissue of a series of partially-forgotten, yet popular at the time, novels from the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. [2] These were titles that Orwell deemed, ‘ “escape” literature’—novels that are easy to read, amusing and exciting, or completely absurd and full of melodrama such as, he exemplifies, Bram Stoker’s Dracula (1897) or the Sherlock Holmes novels (1887-1915). These were not concerned with replicating or upholding the scenes and trials of ‘real life’ but rather offering ‘quiet corners where the mind can browse at odd moments’—a huge understatement here from Orwell who makes these kinds of books seem futile or unimpressionable, when in actual fact, ‘genre fiction’, as these titles can be defined today, is arguably the loudest and most captivating in all of the narrative kingdom.

Genre fiction books might make you feel a bit self-conscious when placing them on the library checkout counter because they reveal your fantasies—maybe you fancy escaping into a parallel universe through one of the Scientologist L. Ron Hubbard’s science fiction novels, of which there are over 250, or maybe you’re in the mood for one of King of Horror Steven King’s many gruesome tales. Genre fiction is not concerned with proving any kind of literary prowess but rather evoking passionate readership, writership and, above all, pleasure. This type of book Orwell decides, quoting G.K. Chesterton, writer of the Father Brown detective novels, can be described as the ‘good bad book’.

Good Bad Books? was also the title of a series of public workshops and talks that took place in the Barbican library throughout August and September this year programmed by writers and researchers Naomi Pearce and Anna Bunting-Branch. In collaboration with the library staff, the workshops, led by authors and artists, explored the ‘imaginative spaces of genre fiction as sites of comfort and conflict’ in the dystopian setting of the Barbican. Science fiction author Temi Oh discussed the genre’s possibilities for ‘good bad’ world-building; artist Lucy McKenzie invited workshop attendees to respond to the public and private spaces of the Barbican through the magnifying lens of the crime and mystery genre. Poet and author of novel ‘Mrs S’, K Patrick focused on romance, ‘The only space hornier than a library is a library located in the Barbican’ and invited attendees to respond to the chilling scenario of a writing workshop in the Barbican. Artists Hardeep Pandhal and David Steans considered horror as a messy site of dissonance, subversion and, at times, humour. In her introduction to The Promise of Pleasure: Good Bad Books?, the closing event of the series at the Barbican, Naomi Pearce describes genre fiction as ‘tasty junk food’. I sink into the auditorium chair and daydream about the gruesome concept of a horror hot dog.


In Glasgow, since the start of the pandemic there has been a renewed interest in the libraries within contemporary art, aligning with the threat of the permanent closure of many council libraries – see the Save Our Libraries campaign that succeeded in its aim to reopen all of Glasgow’s libraries in early 2022. UNDERFOOT, an exhibition by Elizabeth Price that opened in November 2022, took the archives of Glasgow-based carpet manufacturers Stoddard Templeton as its starting point. In particular, Price focused on carpets the company made for The Mitchell Library, named after tobacco merchant Steven Mitchell who, in 1874, bequeathed his estate to establish the large public library that was intended to be a space open to all people, not just the upper classes. Price focused on the intensity of the carpet patterns as a way to examine the power dynamics at play within the organisation of knowledge in the library towards creating a less hierarchical public space within our de-industrialised urban landscape.

Throughout this year, The Common Guild presented ‘anywhere in the universe’, a project commissioning new works situated within Glasgow’s public libraries by visual artists Rabiya Choudhry, Kate Davis, Sean Edwards, Onyeka Igwe and Yuri Pattison. The history of the public library in Glasgow (and the rest of the UK and USA) and its inextricable links to the trade of enslaved people during the nineteenth century via Dunfermline-born industrialist Andrew Carnegie, who also supported and laid the memorial stone for The Mitchell Library in 1907, were central to conversations around the project, in particular within Aurelia Guo’s commissioned response to Yuri Pattison’s exhibition ‘open stacks’ at The Mitchell. Price’s ‘anywhere in the universe’ aimed to engage with libraries ‘…as essential spaces for knowledge exchange and community-building as inspirational portals for imagination, belonging and civic identity and as spaces for refuge and radical renewal.’


Back to the Barbican and The Promise of Pleasure—So Mayer in conversation with Temi Oh and Anna Bunting-Branch also makes direct reference to Carnegie and the library as a space for organising and colonising knowledge. Good Bad Books? also sought to ask the question of who is invited to gather and who is not within genre fiction—a question which was rightfully left open, Mayer emphasising the class issue that is central to genre fiction as being a literary form that gets you paid due to its high popularity. It’s ‘a rising practice of workers’, they state.

Genre fiction is also a democratising practice where the reader and the fan can also be the writer, for example in the case of the UK’s number one publisher of romance fiction Mills and Boon who currently publish over 100 novels a month and who actively welcome aspiring authors (possibly prolific fan fiction writers) much unlike the often impenetrable upper-middle class world of literary fiction publishing. [3]

In their brilliant conclusion to The Promise of Pleasure companion publication featuring writing from all four writing workshops, Mayer also helpfully outlines the innate difference that they see between literary and genre fiction—literary as being reproductive and mimetic, concerned with a universal objectivism and a limited idea of psychology but also more likely to be awarded literary prizes. Genre fiction on the other hand is generative, representing other ways of coming together on other planes of reality, it is therefore trickier and more subversive, and it is not ‘good realism’.

In her introduction to The Promise of Pleasure, Naomi Pearce outlines the series’ concern with the architecture of genre citing science fiction writer Ursula K. Le Guin’s wish that writers ‘could all live in a big house with lots of rooms and windows, and doors, and none of them locked’. [4] This is where the ‘world-building’ (another Le Guin-ism) of genre fiction comes into play. [5] To return to contemporary visual art, for example, in the last ten years, there has been a particular interest in the genre of science fiction and ‘world building’, demonstrating a collective desire to reimagine our institutions—see Rory Pilgrim’s film and exhibition RAFTS (2020-22) or Tai Shani’s online series The Neon Hieroglyph (2021) or even, coming from within the institution with questionable intent and uncertain aims, see The Serpentine’s podcast series, Reworlding.

Genre fiction holds its references out for all to see, it is a site for mixing voices, tracing patterns of inheritance and influence. It is in this fashion that genre fiction can be difficult and complex, often leaning on classist tropes, nostalgic stereotypes and aphorism, similar to other popular forms of entertainment like situation comedies and pop music. Genre fiction can be overly familiar and it’s within that reliability of the form that we can also find comfort, problematic or not. This mixing of voices within genre fiction generates a site of mixed feelings, the ‘good’ and the ‘bad’—the perfect ambiguous space for reimagining the world around us and taking pleasure in the process.


The day after The Promise of Pleasure, I meet Naomi Pearce in a bougie brunch spot near Old Street. I can’t help but think that the whole idea of genre is limiting to its own aims, I say scoffing a mouthful of halloumi and eggs doused in something green and fragrant. Genres are sited, she replies, haunted house, space ship, bedroom, police station—there are figures and scenes, things that you as a writer can fuck with. Genre wants to make this process of reimagining visible. Her own book, the brilliant Innominate (2023), delves into recent histories of women administrators in artist studios and gentrification in London through the genre of crime fiction. Fiction may be the only retribution, she says, the only method available to tell the discriminatory, off-the-record stories of the women administrators she interviewed for her PhD. This research then became Innominate, which situates crime fiction as a method for writing about art history. She tells me about The Burnt Orange Heresy (1971) by Charles Willeford, a neo-noir crime novel set in the art world and I tell her about the conspiracy theorist Robert A. Bress who thinks that Lucy McKenzie is Banksy. She asks me what genre I see my own book as fitting into and we talk about the irritating curse of the cool girl novelist—is ‘young woman’ a genre?

Later, I’m pushed back out through the Barbican library doors, the low autumn sun splitting through the windows revealing swirling clouds of dust suspended amongst the shelves. I want something to happen to me and invite the library in. I follow Naomi’s instructions looking for the events space in the arts section where the writing workshops took place. A person in sunglasses laden with carrier bags walks very close to my back then slips past me next to ‘Stamps’, dumping down into a deep red seat. I locate a sound from below and follow it. A man plays a glossy black upright piano silently. The deep thud of the keys keep a jaunty pace or maybe it’s a sombre march, it’s impossible to tell. You know it’s not the same as it was, as it was, he croons, ignoring the silence of his surroundings, receiving a stern shhh! from the music librarian. His glossy brown curls gleam and sequined red jumpsuit flicker in the beaming sunlight. He turns around slowly, his fingers still drumming majestically, and with a wide cheeky grin, deals me a heart-stopping, high-voltage, intoxicating wink. [6]


Caitlin Merrett King is a writer and arts programme based in Glasgow. Her novella Always Open Always Closed was published by JOAN earlier this year.

Good Bad Books? was a series of workshops and talks exploring the imaginative spaces of genre fiction as sites of comfort and conflict organised by Anna Bunting-Branch and Naomi Pearce at the Barbican from 19th August to 28th September 2023.


[1] to [6] These paragraphs are inspired by and contain several lines from As It Was, the covid-era hit song by Harry Styles. During The Promise of Pleasure, the closing event for Good Bad Books?, Naomi Pearce, outing herself as ‘an ageing Directioner’, made reference to the song and its music video, the beginning and end sections of which were filmed around the Barbican, Styles adorned in a red sequined jumpsuit.
[5] See Anna Bunting-Branch’s MAP article on feminist science fiction as a world-building practice: