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Critical commentary on Stein has passed through three distinct but overlapping phases. In the first, we find the early appreciations and depreciations, often by Stein's personal friends and enemies; in the second, still ongoing, we find the pioneering scholarly excavations, usually biographical, and close critical analyses, usually stylistic; in the third, the current phase, we find theoretically-informed, often feminist analyses. Though critics in this third phase share less unanimity on central issues than do critics of other signal modernists, an arguably positive sign, they do seem to have agreed that two issues are central: Stein's lesbianism in relation to her feminism (or nonfeminism, or antifeminism, depending on one's point of view); and Stein's postmodernism, or, to use genealogical terms, the features that mark not only her difference from her contemporaries (especially her bête noire, Joyce), but also her resemblance to ours (notably Laurie Anderson, Charles Bernstein, William H. Gass). Crossing paths on this critical landscape, Elizabeth Fifer addresses Stein's lesbianism directly and her feminism indirectly, while Ellen E. Berry argues that Stein's postmodernism, lesbianism, and feminism are inseparable.
Examining several of Stein's "difficult" texts through the optic of sexuality, Fifer endorses two ideas common in Stein studies. First, critics often [End Page 149] argue that Stein's work falls into two distinct and distinguishable categories, variously formulated as "difficult or easy," "serious or popular," "experimental or nonexperimental," with the first term in each pair being the term of approval, and with such texts as the contemporaneous Stanzas in Meditation and The Autiobiography of Alice B. Toklas often cited as examples; Fifer takes this distinction as axiomatic. Second, critics often see Stein as, at the least, a conflicted lesbian and, at the most, a homophobic lesbian; invoking first Richard Bridgman and Edmund Wilson, then Shari Benstock and Catharine Stimpson, Fifer presumes "Stein's own repulsion toward women and homosexuality" and finds "particularly convincing [Stimpson's] vision of Stein's self-hatred." With these two ideas as premises, Fifer sets out to link textuality and sexuality: she proposes that "we can learn to 'read' [Stein's repeated] patterns and strategies, just as we can 'decode' Stein's conscious manipulation of an oblique vocabulary of lesbian eroticism," she selects the category of "difficult writings as those in which Stein most fully expresses her deepest feelings," and she argues, in essence, that "the significance of Stein's manipulation of language lies in her use of its disguising properties"—her use of them, specifically, to disguise aspects of her sexuality from others and from herself.
Though Fifer makes a number of valuable interpretive points, her book has problems that begin with its premises. Though correct to assume that readers experience more difficulty with some of Stein's texts than with others, Fifer locates the source too readily in the texts themselves: her untheorized notion of "difficulty" in any case, lacks normative and explanatory power and, moreover, skews her argument about sexuality. Though also correct to assume that Stein engaged in complex acts of revealment and concealment, that is, she uses only these "difficult" texts to reveal Stein's supposed misogyny, homophobia, and self-hatred; doing so, she runs counter to biographical realities and to evidence from presumably simpler texts, and, in the process, she partly undermines an argument about Stein's feminism that she has adapted from Marianne DeKoven and others. Premises aside, Fifer's ensuing argument, built on close readings, has both empirical and formal problems. By reading selected passages rather than texts, and often only heavily elided parts of passages, she fragments further Stein's already highly polysemous body of writing; with that degree of intervention, she not surprisingly finds evidence to confirm her hypothesis. Paradoxically, and her invocation of Kristeva notwithstanding, she never really moves from mimesis to semiosis, but relies, instead, on a dated model of psychoanalytical criticism in which analyst-reader...