An interview with the Canadian editor of the UK’s finest online literary magazine
Before Twitter, before Facebook, before even e-mail, there was a great social networking tool known as the literary magazine. The great lit mags of the 20th century — The Dial, Partisan Review, The Paris Review, Granta — didn’t just publish wonderful poems, drawings, essays, and stories, they also gave writers and artists a social context for their work, a way of connecting with readers and like-minded creators. Many of these magazines were social in a more obvious sense as well. George Plimpton’s Paris Review was a famous hotbed for parties.
Like every other cultural institution in our current digital age, the lit mag is in a state of flux. On the downside, the older magazines, many of which are dependent upon sponsorship from academic institutions, are facing serious financial trouble as their patrons no longer see their value. But the same technological changes have given a platform to a new generation of lit mags, chief among them being Five Dials.
Published irregularly and edited by Craig Taylor, Five Dials manages to be both everywhere and nowhere at once. The magazine isn’t printed: it’s presented as a PDF file, which is then sent free to subscribers (more than 15,000 strong). Contributors have included Orhan Pamuk, Sheila Heti, Jonathan Franzen, Zadie Smith, and George Saunders.
As an old-style lover of the physical magazine (stapled, glued or stitched together), I was initially a bit skeptical of Five Dials — but once I started reading the back issues (all available for download here), I became an addict. It helped that the PDF format makes it easy to print off the works I wanted to keep permanently. Beautifully designed, cosmopolitan, lively, and alert to the world around us, Five Dials is the literary equivalent of a five-star restaurant that you can get into for free (or at the very most, the cost of spending a few hours at an internet café).
A new issue of Five Dials will be launched this weekend in Montreal — not surprising since Taylor is a Canuck. As he wrote to me, “On the 20th of November we’ll be launching a special Quebec-themed edition of the magazine in Montreal. We’ll have a laptop at the party and some lucky Quebecker will press the button and send the issue — which features Gil Courtemanche, Leonard Cohen, Julie Doucet, Maddie Thien, Rawi Hage, Oscar Wilde, Alain de Botton, Raymond Chandler, and a lot of translated Quebecois writing.”
Wanting to know more, I asked Taylor four questions about Five Dials. Here’s our interview:
Jeet Heer I like the way the magazine combines parties with literary launches; it reminds me of the Paris Review under George Plimpton. Was he an influence, or are other inspirations at work?
Craig Taylor We are all influenced by Plimpton. The Plimptonian shadow looms, though Five Dials events are meant to be a little more democratic than Paris Review parties. If you can make it to Montreal or New York or Sheffield or Jaipur, then you can come to the party. I’d like to think of our subscribers as a bunch of people who are interested not only in the magazine we produce but the way we celebrate. These events give us a chance to meet allies around the world.
I’m intrigued by the fact you are doing a bilingual edition for the Quebec issue. There are periodic attempts to bridge the Canadian language divide in the literary community — via translations usually — but the gulf remains vast. Where did the bilingual idea come from?
Well, we’re racing against the clock to finish the English edition of the mag. The bilingual edition will be produced later, and we’ll probably have a party in London to celebrate it. With Five Dials we can have long issues, two-pagers, bilingual issues, addendums to issues — anything we want. There’s no need for a magazine like this to be rigid.
As for the content, we were intent on finding ways to translate new Quebecois writing, which sometimes stays within the borders of the province. The issue isn’t just meant to bridge the divide between languages in Canada — we want to introduce these writers to our subscribers in Tasmania and Denver too.
In another interview you said, “Short stories get ignored in the UK.” Short stories are such a powerful form in Canada, for a variety of reasons (the exemplary work of Alice Munro and Mavis Gallant, the influence of MFA programs, the proliferation of small journals), but it does seem true that the UK has more of a novel culture. Any thoughts on the differences between Canada’s more short story–friendly literary culture and the UK’s?
I grew up in Canada reading short stories. In the UK there seems to be this self-fulfilling prophecy where publishers don’t think people read short stories so they don’t buy collections, so people don’t see them in shops, so it seems like novels are the only viable form. That may be overly simplistic, but there’s a grain of truth. I see a gap we can fill and it would be wonderful to help, in some small way, to develop the short story scene in the UK. It might even catch up to Canada someday. Probably not — Canada’s still got Munro.
Some journalists have said we’re living in an age where literary journals are springing up like mushrooms in a damp forest. And there does seem to be a real excitement not only surrounding your magazine, but also n+1 and even McSweeney’s (which now seems like the elder statesman). Any thoughts on what’s going on? Also, which of your competitors do you like?
I like them all. I know it sounds very Canadian, but I don’t think of other literary magazines as competitors. Here’s a statement Five Dials released after a recent Guardian article:
Five Dials loves: the LRB, the TLS, the NYRB, Maximum Rocknroll, Broken Pencil, Granta, Shoreditch House Literary Salon, The Book Stops Here, The Book Club Boutique, Firestation Book Swap, Book Slam, Pen Pusher, Literary Death Match, Homework, The Moth, Raconaissance, dovegreyreader, Bookninja, Bookslut, Quill & Quire, McSweeney’s, The New Yorker, Nieves Books, most of n+1, The Believer, and many others.
Five Dials misses: Beer Frame, Might magazine, Factsheet Five, Dishwasher, Punk Planet (print edition), I’m Johnny and I Don’t Give a XXXX, Cometbus, Fish Piss, Infiltration, The Face, and many others.
Five Dials is currently feuding with: the North Texan Literary Review, Platypus (the Adelaide edition), and the South Yorkshire Local History Society (this is being resolved).
Five Dials hates: The Terence Trent D’Arby Critical Reader and Octagonal Dreamz (from Middlesborough).
Five Dials will launch its Quebec issue on Saturday, November 20 at Montreal’s la Maison des Ecrivains (3492 Avenue Laval). The event begins at 7 pm.
XXXXing disclosure: Matthew McKinnon, editor of The Walrus Blog, is a Five Dials contributor. He interviewed Jerry Heller, former manager of the gangsta rap group N.W.A., for the magazine’s obscenity issue.