A Literary Labor of Love - Umberto Tosi

CQR founder Syed Afzal Haider
The other day I was pleased to lunch once again with Syed Afzal Haider, genial founder of Chicago Quarterly Review as well as CQR's fiction editor, friend and retired Chicago Tribune book editor John Blades. Haider has published this literary gem since 1994, making it the Windy City's oldest continuously in-print literary journal, no small feat amid the sea of changes in publishing since then. 

Decidedly nonprofit - with emphasis on the "non," CQR has always been entirely self-sustaining and independent. It is a labour of love, cover-to-cover, a success in the most unconventional terms. It is simultaneously an anachronism and an example of cashless future Utopianism. It's both forward looking and set in its ways. It maintains a handsome Internet presence in the form of its Website and Facebook page, but crankily insists on remaining available only in print, with no ebook editions. I'm proud to have been affiliated with it as a contributing editor for the past five years - allowing this old-timey magazine editor to stay at least nominally un-pastured. 

Our luncheon - at the Celtic Knot, a pub where we often hold events - was one of our periodic editorial board meetings, devoted to planning issues and promotions. CQR has no office. CQR has no money to speak of either. It's a nonprofit in every sense, with editors in Chicago and Santa Cruz, California, operating online, led by our senior editor Elizabeth McKenzie, author of last year's delightful best-selling novel The Portable Veblen
CQR - Issue 26

Our lunchen was one of our editorial group's periodic sit-downs, this one to review and plan events around our newly released Winter 2018, Issue #26, containing 280 pages of original, engaging short stories, essays and poetry. Its freshly printed content, like that of so many in the past, surprises me with it creativeness even though I had been modestly involved in the its production process. With a few exceptions - for example Robert Kerwin ("Poor Lucille") - the contributors are not well known, but well worth reading - starting off for example with Nanjing-China-born, Chicago-area writer Catherine Mao's haunting short story, "The Palest Ink."

Haider - who was born in India and reared in Pakistan, resides in Evanston, Illinois. He is a soft-spoken connoisseur of fine prose, respected novelist and short story writer. His novel, To Be With Her, a wry, cross-cultural romance has earned praise as "engaging and timeless" and written "with the intellect and comic instincts of Rushdie."  In his Issue 26 editor's note, he points out that CQR began as a showcase for local writing talent - with emphasis on new writers. But while Chicago contributors remain a staple, the journal has expanded into a cosmopolitan reading treasure filled with writing from all over the world. These include CQR's ongoing series of special issues dedicated to new writings by Italian, Japanese and most recently, South Asian-Americans. The latter, special CQR Issue 24 edited by Moazzam Sheikh, garnered a spate of rave reviews, including from the New York Times. An Australian writers issue is in the works. CQR has gone so global, in fact, that it celebrated its 20th anniversary in 2014 with a special issue (CQR Volume 17) devoted exclusively to writers who live and work in Chicago itself - including a short story - "Onion Station" - by yours truly. 
CQR at Chicago's Printers Row Lit Fest 2017: (l-to-r) Managing Ed
Gary Houston, poet Chuck Kramer, writer Christine Sneed, founder
Haider, contributors Dipika Mukherjee, Faisal Mohyuddin 

CQR's far-flung writers list, however, hasn't kept us from putting together well attended reading events at libraries, schools, clubs and eateries in the Chicago area, though sometimes that can be a stretch. The events, from University of Chicago, to the aforementioned pub, have been the most enjoyable part of the CQR experience for me, including several in which I've been able to read from my own works. 

As we field each issue, I stop and wonder: Where does all this fabulous writing come from? To be honest, though we on the staff have worked on dozens of plans to raise more than marginal operational capital, CQR doesn't pay its writers except in free issues, good will and a chance to mingle and read aloud. Nevertheless, CQR keeps winning citations and prizes. In the past year these have included three CQR selections in The Best American Essays 2017 and a special mention of CQR Issue 23 contributor Eireene Nealand in the 2018 Pushcart Prize Anthology for her thought-provoking, jagged, heart-rending story set in today's post-Soviet Russia, "Gagarin's Shoelaces."

Up close at CQR - and considering all the other fine literary journals out there, I wonder if there are any more or fewer fine writers today than in years past. Libraries, of course, offer countless past examples, good and not-so. Even if good writing has grown more widespread - as has happened for example with opera singing and piano playing due to finer school - the hundreds we see are few in comparison to population. And sorting through submission, I still see a fair number of mediocre examples (though conscientiously, we do our best to read and respond to all submissions at least with yes-no.) The CQR experience challenges my long-held belief - to quote Samuel Johnson - that "no one but a blockhead ever wrote except for money." Now I'm a blockhead too, except of course, that starting out at our desks, we're all blockheads. The play's the thing. Money comes later, if at all. And most of us don't have the luxury of ignoring it altogether.

But in the future... you say. At least a possible future... What if - due to neurological enhancements of the kind envisioned by transhumanists like Ray Kurzweil - everybody, or practically everyone, could write beautiful prose or poetry, or pick up a violin and make like Paganini? We'd need a different economic paradigm for society for one thing (but then we already need one badly now if humanity is to survive and any progress made.) Would we then all enjoy each other's works? After all, no matter the talent, each creation would remain unique. Would some works always be superior and/or more widely sought than others?  Just a thought. We've got a long way to go before then, thankfully. 

Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago partnered with artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. (Umberto3000@gmail.com)   


Umberto, what a beautiful tribute to a truly fine publication and one so necessary for our times! I am proud to be a CQR contributor and this journal has led to great friendships and some lovely wordsworthy evenings. Kudos to the team of editors--including you and Syed and Gary and Elizabeth and John -- who keep this labour of love going for no reward at all. You have our deepest gratitude.
Moazzam Sheikh said…
that is a very heart warming homage to a tradition of writing sustained by friends and strangers for the pure love of literature and art. (moazzam)
Bill Kirton said…
I'm with the others - this is a lovely story of an enterprise that's surviving (and even thriving) despite the fact that it's driven by seemingly outmoded values. Good luck to all involved and long may CQR continue.
Rosalie Warren said…
Very interesting to learn more about CQR - and how wonderful that Elizabeth McKenzie is your senior editor. I loved 'The Portable Veblen' - one of my favourite novels of last year.

Keep up the good work, all of you.

Interesting speculation from you, too, about the possible 'transhumanist' future where everyone can write beautiful prose and poetry. This has really set me thinking. I comfort myself with the thought that each of us have stories only we can write!
Umberto Tosi said…
Thanks for the kind words, Dipika, Amar, Bill and Rosalie. I'm glad you enjoyed the post. @Rosalie: I wonder if all those brilliant talents would succumb to backbiting and envy, each trying to redefine things his way, in such a putative transhumanist future. I guess that's a dark thought, but grist. Anyway, go for it if you like the premise. I would make good scifi in your hands. :)

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