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 research and teaching focuses on memoir and contemporary life-writing, digital and popular cultures, and their intersections with gender and queer theory. I am currently working on a study of ‘confession’ under neoliberalism and write regularly on feminist politics in contemporary literature, TV, and pop music.

I also work on sound studies and the cultural values attributed to quiet and loud in North America. My first book, The Quiet Contemporary American Novel, was published by Manchester University Press in 2018 and was recently out in paperback. My co-edited collection on Marilynne Robinson, reading the author in her contemporary and political contexts for the first time, was published in March 2022.

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

Culture and collections

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