Dr Sarah Dillon, Faculty of English



Biographical Information

I read English at Clare College, Cambridge, graduating in 1998. I went on to gain an M.A. in Philosophy and Literature from the University of Warwick in 1999 and a D.Phil. in English from the University of Sussex in 2004. I taught at the University of St Andrews for eight years, from 2006-2014, first as a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature. I took up my present post as University Lecturer in Literature and Film in the English Faculty at Cambridge in 2014. 

I am a member of the Faculty of English's Contemporaries research group and the interdisciplinary Cambridge Centre for Film and Screen. More widely, I am the General Editor of the book series Gylphi Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays and Chair of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies. I also serve on the editorial boards of C21: Journal of Twenty-First Century Writing and Fantastika.


BBC Broadcasting and Partnership:

In 2013 I was selected as an Arts and Humanities Research Council & BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker. I now broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, presenting Literary Pursuits on Radio 3, and Close Reading on Radio 4’s Open Book. I also brokered and manage the University of Cambridge's partnership with the BBC on the National Short Story Award, and with the BBC and First Story on the Young Writers' Award and Student Critics' Award.

Details of all my public and media activities can be found on my website and blog.

 Email: sjd27 [at] cam.ac.uk


Research Interests

I am a feminist scholar of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, film and philosophy, with a research focus on the epistemological function and role of fictional narratives, and on the engaged humanities. My work takes place at sites of intersection and interconnection, between disciplines and fields (literary theory and criticism, literature and science studies, science fiction studies, film studies, continental philosophy, feminist theory and criticism), and between sectors (academia, the media, policy and governance). It interrogates those sites in order to theorise and perform the specific modes of thought and knowledge offered by literature, cinema and the humanities.


Current Book Projects:

Listen: Taking Stories Seriously, co-authored with Claire Craig (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2020)

This book arises out of collaborative thinking with Dr Claire Craig, Chief Science Policy Officer at the Royal Society, and out of my developing theorisation and practice of an ‘engaged humanities’ which brings the insights of our disciplines to sectors outside of academia. This book makes a case for the value of attention to stories, and the importance of understanding their functions and effects, in the context of high-level decision-making and policy-making. We draw together insights about the interactions between stories and human actions (currently distributed across a range of different disciplines) to illuminate the effects of, and relationship between, stories and human action at the networked rather than the individual level. We attend to the functions of stories, their relationship to networks, how they travel, whose stories are told and heard, and how stories about the future can influence the present. Our arguments are developed and demonstrated through engagement with the literary and other stories associated with five areas of public decision-making and reasoning where decisions are strongly influenced by contentious knowledge and powerful imaginings: climate change, the economy, nuclear power, genetic technologies, and artificial intelligence. We argue that the task of taking stories seriously is urgent now, as recent political events have exposed the limits of technocratic evidence, and aim to create the conditions in which the task of listening to stories is possible, expected and becomes endemic. In doing so, we wish to extend the range of ways in which literature contributes to human flourishing through its capacity to make available to public reasoning alternative forms of thought and knowledge.  


Literature and Artificial Intelligence: Narrative Knowledge and Applied Epistemology (in preparation)

This book explores the role of literature in a field which one of its founders, John McCarthy, wished to call ‘applied epistemology’, rather than artificial intelligence. The book uses the conjunction of literature and AI to pursue in this specific context my long-standing research interest in the epistemological value of literature, in particular its different episteme in contrast to analytic philosophy (with which AI is closely aligned) and science. The book is structured around a series of case studies, from Turing to the present, in which a specific literary text has intersected in demonstrable ways with AI research. Pairings include: Turing's 'Computer Machinery and Intelligence' (1950) and Samuel Butler’s Erewhon (1872); Joseph Weizenbaum's ‘ELIZA – A Computer Program For the Study of Natural Language Communication Between Man and Machine’ (1966) and George Bernard Shaw's Pygmalion (1913); as well as paired works by Daniel Dennett and Richard Powers, and Marvin Minsky and Harry Harrison. The engagement with the case-studies will serve multiple functions: to create a geneaology of interactions between literature and AI; to provide new close readings of literary texts in light of their interaction with AI research; to demonstrate the way in which literature, and literary critical thinking, operate as forms of knowledge; and to explore, through literature and literary criticism, philosophical questions that the development of AI poses, for instance in relation to the nature of gender, the human, human-machine interaction, and creativity.


Previous Books:

Deconstruction, Feminism, Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018)

Deconstruction, Feminism, Film is an active work of film philosophy that performs its general philosophical work through singular close readings, employing the method of metonymic reading which characterises my work. The book places key deconstructive visual texts within their cinematic as well as philosophical contexts, and employs a dual feminist methodology of critique and generation in order to balance careful elaboration of the possibilities Derrida’s work offers to feminist and film thought with detailed critique of his thinking about gender, sexuality, film and the visual. In doing so, the book theorises and performs the possibilities of a contemporary deconstructive feminist film critical practice as well as offering new feminist theories of key concerns of film studies including spectatorship, realism vs artifice, narrative, adaptation, auto/biography, and the still.


The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2007)

The Palimpsest combines close readings of literary texts by Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence, H.D., Umberto Eco and Ian McEwan with theoretical engagements with Abraham and Torok, Butler, Derrida, Genette, Heidegger, Kristeva and Riffaterre. It does so in order to argue that the metaphor of the palimpsest, and the theory of palimpsestuous relationality developed out of it, provide a conceptual structure for thinking anew about history, subjectivity, temporality, textuality and sexuality.


Areas of Graduate Supervision

I am interested in supervising graduate students working on twentieth and/or twentieth-first century literature and/or film who share any of my research interests and who combine close reading with theoretical literacy. I am currently supervising doctoral projects on: the aestheticisation of failure in contemporary cultural theory and production, and the speculative archive in African American literature, culture and history. Whilst at St Andrews, I supervised PhDs on Ian McEwan and phenomenology; sex in contemporary literature; William Gibson and the gestalt; literature of the anthropocene; and contemporary dystopian fiction. 


Selected Publications



Literature and Artificial Intelligence: Narrative Knowledge and Applied Epistemology (in preparation).

Listen: Taking Stories Seriously, co-authored with Claire Craig (London: Routledge, forthcoming 2020). 

Deconstruction, Feminism, Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018).

The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (London: Continuum, 2007).


Edited Collections: 

AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, ed. with Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2020).

Maggie Gee: Critical Essays, ed. with Caroline Edwards (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2015).

David Mitchell: Critical Essays, ed. (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2011).


Journal Special Issues:

‘Imagining Derrida’, Special Issue of Derrida Today 10:2 (2017), ed. with John Schad. 


Journal Essays:

‘On the Influence of Literature on Science’, Configurations 26:3 (2018), Special Joint Issue with Journal of Literature and Science: State of the Unions (Part 2): 311-16. Available here.

‘The Horror of the Anthropocene’, C21 Literature: Journal of 21st Century Writings 6:1 (2018), Special Issue: The Literature of the Anthropocene. Open access, available here

‘Cinematic Incorporation: Literature in My Life Without Me’, Film Philosophy 19 (2015): 55-66. Open access, available here.

‘It is a Question of Words, Therefore’: Becoming-Animal in Michel Faber’s Under the Skin’, Science Fiction Studies 38:1 (2011), 134-54. Open access, available here.

‘Chaotic Narrative: Complexity, Causality, Time and Autopoiesis in David Mitchell’s Ghostwritten’, Critique 52:2 (2011), 135-62. Open access version, and link to official publication, available here.

‘Imagining Apocalypse: Maggie Gee’s The Flood’, Contemporary Literature 48:3 (2007), 374-97.

‘Palimpsesting: Reading and Writing Lives in H.D.’s Palimpsest’, Critical Survey, Special Issue: Modernist Women Writers Using History, ed. Ann Heilmann and Mark Llewllyn, 19:1 (2007), 29-39. Open access version, and link to official publication, available here.

‘Life After Derrida: Anacoluthia and the Agrammaticality of Following’, Research in Phenomenology 36 (2006), 97-114. Open access version, and link to official publication, available here.

‘Re-inscribing De Quincey’s Palimpsest: The Significance of the Palimpsest in Contemporary Literary and Cultural Studies’, Textual Practice 19:3 (2005), 243-263.


Book Chapters:

‘The Governance of AI’, with Michael Dillon, in AI Narratives: A History of Imaginative Thinking about Intelligent Machines, ed with Stephen Cave and Kanta Dihal (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming 2020).

'Feminist Fiction and Forms of Empowerment', in Empowering Contemporary Fiction, ed. Ralf Hertel and Eva-Maria Schmitz (Leiden: Brill, forthcoming 2019).

‘Who Rules the World?: Reimagining the Feminist Dystopia’, in New Feminist Studies: Twenty-First Century Critical Interventions, ed. Jennifer Cooke (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, forthcoming 2019).

‘David Mitchell’, in The Routledge Companion to Twenty-First Century Fiction, ed. Daniel O'Gorman and Robert Eaglestone (London: Routledge, 2018), pp. 372-82.

‘English and the Public Good’, in English: Shared Futures, ed. Robert Eaglestone and Gail Marshall (Martlesham: Boydell and Brewer, 2018), pp. 194-201.

‘Derrida and the Question of “Woman”’, in Derrida and Queer Theory, ed. Christian Hite (Brooklyn: Punctum Books, 2017), pp. 108-130. Open access, available here.

‘Literary Equivocation: Reproductive Futurism and The Ice People’, in Maggie Gee: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon and Caroline Edwards (Canterbury: Glyphi, 2015), pp. 101-132.

'Beyond the Blue: The Sorrowful Joy of Gee’, with Caroline Edwards, in Maggie Gee: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon and Caroline Edwards (Canterbury: Glyphi, 2015), pp. 1-29.

‘“Talking about the same questions but at another rhythm”: Deconstruction and Film’, in The First Sail: The Cinema of J. Hillis Miller, ed. Dragan Kujundzic (Open Humanities Press/University of Michigan Online Publications, 2015), pp. 86-101. Open access, available here.

‘Introducing David Mitchell’s Universe: A Twenty-First Century House of Fiction’, in David Mitchell: Critical Essays, ed. Sarah Dillon (Canterbury: Gylphi, 2011), pp. 3-23.

‘Time for the Gift of Dance’ in Sex, Gender and Time in Literature and Culture, ed. Ben Davies and Jana Funk (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011), pp. 109-131.