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