Dr Rachel Sykes BA, MSt, PhD

Photograph of Dr Rachel Sykes

Department of English Literature
Lecturer in Contemporary American Literature

Contact details

Room 151, Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

I joined the University of Birmingham in 2016 as a lecturer in Contemporary American Literature. My research focuses on the American novel, quietness, memoir, gender, and digital cultures. I am currently writing a cultural and literary history of quiet in the American tradition.


  • PhD American and Canadian Studies (University of Nottingham)
  • MSt English and American Studies (University of Oxford)
  • BA (Hons) English and Related Literatures (University of York)


As an undergraduate, I studied at the University of York and Mount Holyoke College, USA, before undertaking an MSt at the University of Oxford and a PhD at the University of Nottingham.

Prior to joining the University of Birmingham I taught English and American Studies at the University of Nottingham, the University of Leicester, and Nottingham Trent University; prior to that, I taught English in Russia and worked as a journalist in Dublin.

Until 2015, I also worked for Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership as an administrator.


In 2016-2017, I am teaching the first-year module ‘Poetry’ and convening the third-year module ‘Contemporary North American Writing’. I also contribute to the Twentieth and Twenty-First Century pathway on the MA Literature and Culture.

Postgraduate supervision

I would love to hear from students interested in themes related to my research: fiction post-2000, including US responses to September 11th 2001, Hurricane Katrina, and the financial crisis; gender and sexuality in memoir and online cultures; contemporary women writers, including, but not limited to, Marilynne Robinson, Jesmyn Ward, Lydia Davis, and Chris Kraus.


My first book, The Quiet Contemporary American Novel, is forthcoming with Manchester University Press. It is the first study to develop a theory of quiet as a narrative aesthetic in contemporary fiction and shows how, as a phrase, “the quiet novel” has a long and untraced history dating back to the 1860s in British and American periodicals.

Building on my first book and its intersection with gender studies and digital cultures, I am currently planning my second monograph, TMI: Towards a Poetics of Oversharing. This project reads a common poetics in contemporary experimental women’s fiction, revising and expanding existing scholarship on modern confessional writing to examine the as-yet undefined concept of oversharing and its relationship with gendered online identities.

My work covers a broad range of writers, including Marilynne Robinson, Teju Cole, Alice Munro, Lynne Tillman, Richard Powers, Elena Ferrante, Chris Kraus, Lydia Davis, Maggie Nelson, Jesmyn Ward, and Kathy Acker. Both projects also reflect my wider interest in autofiction and other forms of narrative in which narrative action is not predicated by narrative “event”.

Other activities

I am chair of the Contemporary Studies Network and co-convene a bi-monthly reading group based in Nottingham.

As part of CSN, I am developing a range of upcoming activities and events, including a series of film screenings on the US election, an email ‘roundtable’ discussion to be published by the Open Library of the Humanities, and a special issue of C21 Literature: journal of 21st-century writings.

In June 2016, I co-organised a one-day symposium on the work of Marilynne Robinson and am currently co-editing a special issue of the Irish Journal of American Studies as well as an edited collection on Robinson’s work.

I also write and review for a range of publications including Review 31, LSE Review of Books, Glasgow Review of Books, The Toast, and This Recording. The highlight of my life was appearing on BBC Woman’s Hour.



[Forthcoming] The Quiet Contemporary American Novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press)

Journal Articles

[Forthcoming] “‘If he knew, and if he didn’t: narrative perspective in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels”, Irish Journal of American Studies (April 2017)

[Forthcoming] ““Who gets to speak and why?”: the gendered poetics of oversharing in contemporary American women’s writing”, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society (2017)

[Forthcoming] “Reading for quiet in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead novels”, Critique: Studies in Contemporary Fiction (2016)

““All that howling space”: “9/11” and the aesthetic of noise in contemporary American fiction”, C21 Literature: Journal of 21st-century Writings 4(1): 2 (2016): http://dx.doi.org/10.16995/c21.2

“Loud Fictions: The Noise of the Contemporary American Novel”, Alluvium 4.3 (2015), http://dx.doi.org/10.7766/alluvium.v4.4.01

Book Chapters

“Marilynne Robinson”, Dictionary of Literary Biography 378: Novelists on the American Civil War (Columbia: Bruccolli Clark Layman, 2016)

“A failure of imagination? Problems in “Post-9/11” fiction”, Making Meaning of 9/11: Local Impacts, Global Implications, Robert Fanuzzi, Susan Rosenberg, and Michael Wolfe (eds), (Fordham: Fordham University Press, 2014), 248-262

Selected Reviews

“American Tantalus: Horizons, Happiness, and the Impossible Pursuit of US Literature and Culture”, Journal of American Studies 50.2 (May 2016)

“Lila”, Review 31 (January 9, 2015)

“American Unexceptionalism”, U.S. Studies Online (August 22, 2014)

“Tweeting to Power”, LSE Review of Books (May 12, 2014)