The inimitable voice of Rebecca Mead

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Rebecca Mead’s versatility when writing about culture and contemporary literature is unmatched. Having written extensively about literature in multiple publications, she also published a book of her own in 2014 called The Road to Middlemarch, an elegant blend of memoir and literary criticism about George Eliot’s famous novel. Her accomplishments in the field of journalism and criticism are all too easy to envy: after graduating University College, Oxford with a degree in English Language and Literature in 1988, she moved to the United States and began climbing up the ladder at New York Magazine before beginning at The New Yorker in 1997.

For those who don’t know of the States-based magazine or are maybe wondering why they should care, it publishes fiction and poetry alongside pieces covering culture, news, and politics. It’s iconic, exclusive, relentlessly first-rate, and its list of contributors in the past century studded with stars: Vladimir Nabokov, Haruki Murakami, Kurt Vonnegut, Sylvia Plath, Zadie Smith, Woody Allen, Leonard Cohen, Tina Fey, Milan Kundera, J.D. Salinger, and John Updike – to name just a few. “There is no British equivalent to The New Yorker,” Rebecca Mead sagely notes. The Oxford Student interviewed Mead about her life, writing, and what’s it like to work at such a renowned publication.

“It’s an amazing place to work,” she says right off the bat. “When I went to the New Yorker I had something like the feeling I got when I first went to Oxford: this place is full of really smart people who are interested in really interesting things.” The idea that The New Yorker is as much a nerd-fest as an undergraduate-infested lecture hall is nothing short of revelatory. It makes such an unattainable, illustrious career feel just a little bit closer for budding journalists and writers in Oxford.

Today, Mead is hailed not just as a prolific critic and journalist, but also as one of the foremost profile writers of this generation, responsible for The New Yorker’s portraits of Lena Dunham, Slavoj Zizek, Mary Beard, and many more. Her talent for the singular, razor-sharp, witty sentence is astounding: in a profile of author Jennifer Weiner – who writes “chick-lit” novels and vehemently derides more “serious” authors who have devalued her cliché-ridden work – Mead writes with an acidic and incisive touch: “It seems possible that a forthcoming Weiner novel will include a female writer of literary fiction—quite possibly slender and severely attractive—who will say something dismissive about chick lit, and who will wind up garotted with a pair of Spanx.”

Zing! The complex dimensions of Weiner as a literary figure are compactly packed into one dense yet lexically tiny verbal punch. When thinking of The New Yorker’s esteemed reputation and one-million person readership, it’s difficult not to appreciate the skill in sentences like that, which are peppered throughout the body of her work. At once sharp-witted and funny, Rebecca Mead, just like The New Yorker, is never mean – she’s just smart.

When asked when writing for her is difficult, she says simply: “I know some writers are tortured by the writing process, but I’m not one of them. There is little that makes me happier than sitting down at my computer when I’m ready to write a piece, and figuring out the best words to put together. There is a great satisfaction in the artistry of it.” And artistry indeed it is.

When talking about her adolescence, she talks of the importance of reading. “Books,” she writes, “gave us a way to shape ourselves … I sought to identify myself with the kind of intelligence I found in Middlemarch.” So, when Mead was accepted into Oxford to study English, she emphasises she “had a very strong sense that it was a transformative event.” She describes having mixed feelings about her time in Oxford. “I remember thinking sometimes that it seemed as if the biggest thing I was learning at Oxford was how to read a lot of great works of literature very quickly.” But she also found it hugely rewarding: “Once I got to Oxford,” she says, “I felt such a relief to be among other people who cared about books and ideas, to be somewhere where having an intellectual life was cool.”

And what does Mead consider the most important quality for a writer? “For the mind of a writer, the most important thing is curiosity – which may be a native trait, but can also be developed. For the craft of a writer, the most important thing is to read.” She adds, “It takes a tremendous amount of determination.” Her published work spans genres – from biography, autobiography, literary criticism, journalism – but never straight fiction. When discussing this, Mead alludes to a quote by George Eliot, who said that she never wanted to write fiction due to fear of mediocrity. “I would hate to get to the end of my life never having tried,” says Mead, ‘so maybe I should risk mediocrity.”

And does she have any more projects on the horizon? “Having spent so much time thinking about the 19th century,” she writes, “I am happily back at The New Yorker, catching up on what’s happening in the 21st.”

/ILLUSTRATION: Tom Barnett