Dr Rachel Sykes BA, MSt, PhD

Photograph of Dr Rachel Sykes

Department of English Literature
Senior Lecturer in Contemporary American Literature

Contact details

Room 151, Arts Building
University of Birmingham
B15 2TT

My research and teaching focuses on three areas: 1) sound studies and aesthetics of quiet and loud in American culture, 2) memoir and contemporary life-writing, and 3) digital and popular cultures.

My first book, The Quiet Contemporary American Novel, was published in 2017 by Manchester University Press and I am currently working on a study of ‘confession’ under neoliberalism.


  • 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)


I joined the University of Birmingham in 2016, after teaching English and American Studies at the University of Nottingham, the University of Leicester, and Nottingham Trent University.

Prior to academia, I taught English in Veliky Novgorod, Russia and worked as a journalist for local papers in Shropshire and Dublin. I also worked for Midlands3Cities Doctoral Training Partnership as an administrator until 2015.


In 2018-2019, I am teaching two third-year modules: ‘TMI: Confessional Writing from Rousseau to present’ and ‘The Modern Short Story’. I also convene and teach on the second-year theme module, ‘Introduction to Gender and Sexuality.’

Postgraduate supervision

I would love to hear from students interested in themes related to my research: gender, sexuality, and race in memoir and online cultures; fiction post-2000; disability and queer theory; contemporary women writers, including but not limited to Marilynne Robinson, Jesmyn Ward, Kamila Shamsie, Elena Ferrante, and Lynne Tillman; gender and popular culture.

Find out more - our PhD English Literature  page has information about doctoral research at the University of Birmingham.


My first book, The Quiet Contemporary American Novel, was published with Manchester University Press in 2018. 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.

Post-quietness, I am developing new work based on contemporary feminisms, memoir studies, and popular culture. My second book project will function as an updated study of confession in an era of neoliberalism. I published an article on popular and critical use of the term oversharing and its relationship to gendered online identities with Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society and I’m currently writing about discourses of risk and precarity in contemporary confessional writing.

Other activities

Centre for Contemporary Literature and Culture

I direct the English department’s Centre for Contemporary Literature and Culture, running a full programme of guest speakers, reading groups, workshops, and poetry readings.

Contemporary Studies Network (CSN)

As chair of CSN, I co-convene a bi-monthly reading group based in Birmingham but with sessions throughout the midlands and the north. We also run a range of activities and public events, which have included a series of film screenings on the 2016 US election, an email ‘roundtable’ discussion on the cultural meaning of the Anthropocene, and a special issue of C21 Literature: journal of 21st-century writings. In 2019, we are planning a series of events on contemporary ideas about and reactions to canonicity.

Marilynne Robinson

In 2016, I co-organised a one-day symposium on the work of Marilynne Robinson and, with my conference organisers, co-edited a special issue of the Irish Journal of American Studies. Our edited collection on Robinson’s work is forthcoming with Manchester University Press.


I have written creatively and critically for a range of publications including The Independent, Review 31, LSE Review of Books, Glasgow Review of Books, The Toast, and This Recording. I have also appeared on BBC Radio 4 and Radio Derby.



  • Marilynne Robinson: Essays (Manchester: Manchester University Press, in preparation)
  • The Quiet Contemporary American Novel (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2017)

Peer-reviewed articles

Book chapters

  • ‘Marilynne Robinson’, The Routledge Companion to 21st Century Literary Fiction, eds. Robert Eaglestone and Daniel O’Gorman (forthcoming 2019)
  • ‘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

Recent reviews

  • ‘“We”: Brit Bennett’s The Mothers’, Glasgow Review of Books (4 July 2016)
  • ‘Ripostes and Addendums: Teju Cole’s Known and Strange Things’Glasgow Review of Books (27 October 2016)
  • American Tantalus: Horizons, Happiness, and the Impossible Pursuit of US Literature and Culture’, Journal of American Studies 50.2 (May 2016), 208-209

Co-edited articles & special issues


  • “I Love Dick and Bridget Jones are back, but not much has changed for women since the Nineties”, The Independent (24/09/2016)
  • BBC Woman’s Hour (28 September 2015)
  • “To overshare: the long and gendered history of TMI”, The Conversation (24 July 2015)

View all publications in research portal