The Sommalier Theory of Genre Fiction

I’ve been wrestling recently with why I like some books and don’t like others, which has led me to drinking thinking more deeply about what genre fiction delivers to its readers.

Emotional investment. That sense of what will happen to them next?? Also called “story” or “characterization.” Common to all types of fiction, and even some non-fiction. If the reader cares about the protagonist, the book is Sweet. If not, it’s Dry.

Factual accuracy. Important to science fiction, fantasy, mystery, and historical fiction. If your book educates the reader, it is Full-bodied. If not, it’s Light.

Internal consistency. The basis by which fantasy and science fiction are judged, also called “plausibility,” “believably,” or “good world-building.” If your book thoroughly explores the ramifications of your conceit, it is Rich. If not, it’s Fruity.

Real-world parallels. Also called “metaphor,” “theme,” or “being topical.” Especially important in science fiction and fantasy. If this book really makes the reader think, it is  Balanced. If not, it’s Bitter.

Excitement. Do interesting things happen in the book? Also called “plot,” or “escapism value.” Like alcohol in wine, it’s what we’re really hear for, even if we don’t admit it. If your book entertains the reader, it is Sharp. If not, it’s Round.

And there’s writing style, which is like the packaging the wine comes in. Much as we hate to admit it, wine really does taste worse when it comes out a bag, and it’s harder to enjoy a story when the author can’t tell a comma from an apostrophe. If the author has an impressive turn of phrase, their book is Beautifully-presented. if not, it’s Poorly-presented.

Let’s try out this system on some of the books I’ve read (and enjoyed) recently:

Diaspora by Greg Egan: A rather dry book, but one of the most full-bodied I’ve ever read, and extremely rich. It’s more balanced than a book about 30th-century simulated minds might appear, and decently sharp, presented competently if not not elegantly. 4/5 stars. It would have rated higher if he hadn’t rushed the ending, which was so dry it seemed pointless.

The Hanging Tree by Ben Aaronovitch: Very sweet, and full-bodied in its portrayal of the metropolitan police and its account of London history seen through architecture, reinforced by a rich magical system. It’s a bit bitter, but only because Aaronovich doesn’t have any particular political ax to grind, which I appreciate. The last book in the series was a round for my taste, but this one is as sharp as any, with plenty of explosions and car-hurling. Presentation is competent. 5/5 stars. I love Peter!

Babylon’s Ashes by James S.A. Corey. The beginning of the series was dry, but now that I’ve gotten attached to the characters, I don’t mind. It’s a bit light, not dwelling very deeply on the technical aspects of anything, but at least it doesn’t make up technobabble, and it’s quite rich, especially with the economic ramifications of new technology. This book is quite political, but presents its argument well, and its balance is the main reason I love it. It’s also one of the sharpest books in the series, with space-battles and civil unrest. Presentation is competent (as you can see, I don’t much care about presentation). 5/5 stars. It got me through some tough times.

And you can’t see which books I hated unless you’re my friend on facebook 🙂

So what do you think? Does this system of classifying books help anyone? Can you suggest some pairings? What kind of book is the best accompany to a day at the beach, for example? A boring bus ride? Five minutes in bed before you fall asleep?


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  • On further thought, I don’t know anything about wine. Maybe I should have used food instead:

    Emotional investment=sweet
    Factual accuracy=salty
    Internal consistency=umami
    Real-world parallels=bitter

    So Greg Egan writes books like teriyaki-mustard-flavored beef jerky. Better?