“I’m not a fan of precious literary magazines,” swears 32-year-old London-based writer and editor Craig Taylor. Taylor has always preferred high comedy to high seriousness—case in point being his previous gig for the Guardian, where he penned a weekly piece called “One million tiny plays about Britain,” a series of wryly sketched bits of overheard conversation. But it’s in his current job where Taylor’s knack for the perverse and the profound really takes off: He edits the digital literary magazine Five Dials, mostly from the London Library and his house in Camden. Each month a PDF of the latest issue arrives via e-mail in readers’ inboxes, free of charge (subscribe at fivedials.com).
Even though some subscribers choose to print out the document rather than read it onscreen or on BlackBerry, Five Dials isn’t so much a hard object as it is a delivery method for all manner of great writing. In the June 2008 premier issue, Brit novelist Hari Kunzru kicked things off with a mock polemical satire about underappreciated interns. In ensuing issues, Jonathan Safran Foer intimately remembers the artist R.B. Kitaj, and Noam Chomsky opines on everything Obama. How does a publication this defiantly low-budget and lo-fi—the Daily Telegraph called its format “Web 0.5”—wrangle such literary lions? Five Dials quietly lives under the editorial wing of Hamish Hamilton, a Penguin Group U.K. imprint home to the likes of Dave Eggers, Zadie Smith, and Safran Foer. Though he doesn’t hesitate to raid the rich H.H. coffers, Taylor insists that Five Dials publish writers of varying fame, from all over. “A young woman from Qatar sent in a piece about her relative’s wedding,” he says. “That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking for.”
Taylor tends to have a wandering but sharply attuned eye—he himself wrote a funny and moving book, Return to Akenfield, in 2006, chronicling the oral history of a tiny English village. It was, in part, Taylor’s keen eye that prevailed upon Dean Allen, an old-fashioned text guru, to design the online magazine from his home in the French countryside—or, in Allen’s grasp of geography, “the non-British side of the Rhone.” The look Allen created for Five Dials is simple and typographically sharp (intermixed with the occasional photo or illustration). They must be doing something right: The circulation has jumped to more than 7,000 subscribers in less than a year. That may make it the biggest literary juggernaut journal never to have hit newsstands.