The Franzen Project: Tier ranking all of Jonathan Franzen’s books

I first tried to read all of Jonathan Franzen’s books as a project in 2017 and failed. I did, however, have a few runs of Franzen in February, and wrote some highly entertaining (IMO) posts.

It wasn’t the pandemic that pushed me to finally bring this one home in 2021. It was a combo of the Mr. Difficult podcast, a fellow Franzen enthusiast I met on Twitter, and good timing. Having got my greedy hands on a Crossroads ARC (thanks Jenn!), I realized that the ranks of true Franzen completists, already fairly small, would contract again as people catch up on this latest novel.

I was going to do a full ranking, but, despite what you may have heard, his works are pretty diverse, and a meaningful ranking would be difficult. Plus, ranking more than 5-10 items is not good practice (trust me, I write surveys for a living). Then I remembered a modified ranking methodology I learned from my kids, in a video about ranking doors. Yeah:

Further research reveals that “tier ranking” is a Thing in the gaming world, typically used to rank playable characters or levels, and you know what, I like it! Behold:

Books by Jonathan Franzen Tier Ranking

A+ Tier

  • Crossroads (2021): Elite Franzen. Have you all noticed the usual haters have been awfully quiet this time around? Yeah.

A Tier

  • The Corrections (2001): Could move to A+ upon reread. Dysfunctional family coming together at Christmas time is his forte. Does get a little “quirky” at times but if you are into his quirks it’s all good.
  • Freedom (2010): We all need to talk about Patty. And birds.
  • The Discomfort Zone (2006): Essential (well, only) memoir.
  • How to be Alone (2002): Essential essays, mostly written before he was a Great American Novelist.

B Tier

  • Purity (2015): Enjoyed it while reading, but unmemorable.
  • Farther Away (2012): Uneven, great on personal subjects (parents, DFW) but a bit boring on others (birds)

C Tier

  • Strong Motion (1992): Interesting because there are early iterations of some of his favourite themes, but a big old mess.
  • The Twenty-Seventh City (1988): Apart from a memorable scene of existential dread set in a mall, a slog.
  • The End of the End of the Earth (2018): Maybe because I’d read most of them before? Didn’t make an impression.

D Tier

  • The Kraus Project (2013): There are actually several things I appreciate in this hybrid translation, cultural commentary, and memoir, but unless you are a BIG Franzen fan, and/or have a DEEP interest in early 20th century German literature and thought, I would stay far, far away.
  • Spring Awakening (2007): Franzen’s translation of a early 20th century German play, so see above: unless you are a TRUE completist, and/or have a real interest in this kind of thing, I would not recommend. At least it’s short!

You can make your own Franzen tier ranking here, check out other book-related rankings, or, create your own template! I would love to see more literary rankings, as the existing ones are pretty much all YA/MG in nature…

And please argue with me below if you would do this ranking differently!

16 comments

  1. Reese

    Useful! I’m not (yet? maybe yet to come!) a Franzen completist, so I can’t entirely partake. But I’d move 27th City down, and Kraus up. But I already liked Kraus before I read Franzen’s take. And this moves Crossroads up that notional TBR stack.

    • lauratfrey

      Yeah, I had a lot of difficulty with Kraus because I was wholly unfamiliar, with him and his contemporaries, I could see the book being a lot more fun if I didn’t have to google things all the time!

  2. Jan Hicks

    I haven’t started on Franzen yet. I got a Kindle copy of The Corrections for free somewhere, which is waiting for me to take the plunge – glad to see it in the A grade tier!

  3. imogenglad

    I love this idea for structuring book posts – the opposite of dry! V entertaining! I’ve only read The Corrections (and can’t face re-reading as I feel my family have slightly *become* The Corrections) and also Freedom so can’t partake in the ranking, but yeah I love the concept.

  4. Rebecca Foster

    I didn’t get very far when I attempted Crossroads from the library in November, but I’ll certainly try again. I just need to block out some good time. I want to reread both Freedom and The Corrections. I’ll also have to read How to Be Alone as I generally enjoy his essays (have read all the rest, plus his memoir). It’s probably a ‘never’ for the other C and D stuff.

  5. Naomi

    I love this project. It would be fun to do this for lots of complete works, but I know I won’t be the one to get around to it. If you were going to do it again, who would you take on next?

    • lauratfrey

      I’d love to do one on David Adams Richards but he’s too dang prolific! By the time I finished all the novels, I’d have to reread ones I can’t remember. I think 10-15 books is perfect for this kind of ranking.. It’d be cool to do a classic author too but again, the effort to read them all 🙂

    • Denis

      Hi Rachel, perhaps I’m an alien as most reviews of Crossroads are very positive. I’m 167 pages in & wouldn’t even use the pages as toilet paper. I’m just not getting it. To me this is a pointless piece of CRAP. You, however, may really enjoy it. This is my first Franzen novel. I’ll attempt another one and genuinely HOPE for a better result. Crossroads, I’ll give, begrudgingly, ONE star.

  6. annelogan17

    ok first of all I love this way of ranking and thinking – clearly your boys are geniuses. I read Freedom a long time ago and really enjoyed it -does this mean I will like Crossroads?

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