Professor Sarah Dillon

Professor of Literature and the Public Humanities at Faculty of English, University of Cambridge


Sarah is a member of the Faculty of English's Contemporaries research group and the interdisciplinary Cambridge Centre for Film and Screen. She is the General Editor of the book series Gylphi Contemporary Writers: Critical Essays and serves on the editorial boards of C21: Journal of Twenty-First Century Writing and Fantastika.

She has held leadership positions as Director of the Cambridge AHRC Doctoral Training Partnership, as a Programme Director at the Leverhulme Centre for the Future of Intelligence, and as Chair of the British Association for Contemporary Literary Studies. For the 2021/22 and 2022/23 academic years, she is serving as the Director of Postgraduate Studies for the Faculty of English.

BBC Broadcasting and Partnership:

In 2013 Sarah was selected as an Arts and Humanities Research Council & BBC Radio 3 New Generation Thinker and thereafter has broadcast regularly on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4. She co-created, wrote and presented the documentary series Literary Pursuits on Radio 3 from 2016-2019, and the Close Reading feature on Radio 4’s Open Book from 2014-2016. She also brokered and managed 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 from 2017-20, and brokered the renewal of the partnership with the BBC (2020-23).

Research Interests

Sarah is a scholar of late twentieth- and twenty-first-century literature, film and philosophy, with a research focus on the epistemic function and role of stories, on interdisciplinarity, and on the public humanities. Her 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, media, and government). She locates her work at such sites in order to analyse, theorise and perform the specific modes of thought and knowledge offered by literature and cinema, and the humanities more broadly.

Sarah's first book was The Palimpsest: Literature, Criticism, Theory (London: Bloomsbury Academic: 2007), with a focus on the relationship between literature, criticism, theory and philosophy, with each chapter interweaving theorisation of the concept of the palimpsest (via thinkers such as Abraham and Torok, Butler, Derrida, Genette, Heidegger, Kristeva and Riffaterre), with close readings of literary texts in which the metaphor figures, including works by Thomas De Quincey, Arthur Conan Doyle, D.H. Lawrence, H.D., Umberto Eco and Ian McEwan.

Her second book was Deconstruction, Feminism, Film (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2018). Here, she interrogates the interrelationship between the fields indicated in the book's title: deconstruction, feminism, and film. She does so through a dual feminist methodology of critique and generation, which aims 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 2021, Sarah's book co-authored with Claire Craig was published, Storylistening: Narrative Evidence and Public Reasoning, (London: Routledge, 2021). This book arises out of collaborative thinking with Claire Craig about the relationship between literature and the humanities, and public discourse and decision-making. It is fed by Sarah's intellectual interest in interrelationship and interdisciplinarity and in how and why stories function and matter, as well as by the knowledge gained from Sarah's public work - primarily broadcasting - through which she has been researching in practice how the humanities contributes to public life beyond academia. With this book, the authors make the 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 policymaking. The book identifies four relevant functions of stories in this context. Stories can offer alternative points of view, create and cohere collective identities, function as narrative models, and play a crucial role in anticipation. The book demonstrates how literary and other narratives function in this way in relation to four areas of public decision-making and reasoning where decisions are strongly influenced by contentious knowledge and powerful imaginings: climate change, the economy, nuclear power, and artificial intelligence. The authors 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. The book therefore provides insights to enable those engaged in public reasoning to consider the roles of stories more carefully, and to incorporate humanities evidence into decision-making; it also makes strong arguments for the ways in which the humanities disciplines as a whole might extend their imagining of themselves, and their structures and practices, in order to play a more active role in informing public reasoning.

Sarah read English at Clare College, Cambridge, graduating in 1998 and 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. She taught at the University of St Andrews for eight years, from 2006-2014, first as a Lecturer and then Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature and took up her post at Cambridge in 2014.

  • 11 March 2022, 5:30pm

    Democracy and distrust after the pandemic

    The 2022 Dr Seng Tee Lee Lecture was delivered by Professor Shelia Jasanoff, Pforzheimer Professor of Science and Technology Studies at Harvard Kennedy School.

  • 11 February 2020, 5:30pm

    CSaP Annual Lecture: Professor Dame Sally Davies

    The 2020 CSaP Annual Lecture will be delivered by Professor Dame Sally Davies, Master of Trinity College, Cambridge and former Chief Medical Officer for England and Chief Medical Advisor to the UK Government.