Bill’s Contingent Story

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Over the next few weeks we will publish reflections from our staff on why they were drawn to the mission of Contingent Magazine. This is the first in that series, from editor Bill Black.

No one’s going to do it for us.

Ever since Erin and I first discussed this project in June, I’ve kept coming back to this: the TAs, adjuncts, freelancers, librarians, all the historians outside the traditional and increasingly unicornine tenure track—if we don’t create a site like Contingent, then no one is going to do it for us.

I thought of myself as a writer years before I thought of myself as a historian, though I did dress up as a “historian” for some second-grade Career Day thing (costume: khakis, glasses, sport coat with elbow patches, a little pocket notepad). In my teens I wrote a one-act play about reincarnation, poems about time and anxiety and kissing, and fragments of a Gore Vidal–esque epic stretching from the Irish potato famine to Hiroshima.

It should be no surprise, then, that after years of graduate study and coming to hone and appreciate the craft of professional history, I still felt an itch to write stories that, say, my dad could read and understand. I started to freelance now and then, and I really liked it; liked the freedom to write about whatever I was interested in, the quicker turnaround than you find in academic publishing, the comments and emails from readers. I liked the pay.

But I saw that historians had more to offer readers than was possible in the current media ecosystem. I’ve had pitches rejected—drafts, even—because they lacked the right “political punch,” stories I think some readers would have found interesting. I’m not alone in this experience. But I don’t fault the editors; these were stories that really wouldn’t have fit with those publications. So where would they fit?

One option is the Made by History blog at the Washington Post, probably the easiest place for a historian to get published with the most exposure. They actively recruit historians to write for them and put out great stuff. But despite their imprimatur, they’re a blog and so don’t pay their writers. And y’all I just don’t have time for that. Not when there’s other publications I can write for and make more money with four or five articles than I can make teaching an entire class as an adjunct.

There are also great blogs like The Junto and USIH, but they are mostly volunteer operations focused on particular subfields and largely aimed at fellow scholars. Nothing wrong with that; they occupy an important space. But I also believe there’s a space for a magazine that pays writers, has a wider scope, and aims at a wider audience. And given how we’ve raised $10,000 in less than two weeks, others seem to agree.

So let’s create that space. There are so many great stories locked away in hard drives, stories which deserve to be heard but have no obvious home. Let’s build a home for them.

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