The first appearance in print of the word “filler”, according to the OED, was in a pamphlet by Robert Greene on lowlife, published in 1591. It was a term of art among a certain kind of crooked merchants of coal in London, who bought coal in sacks that contained four or five bushels and transferred them to narrower sacks that took two and a half, which they claimed contained the standard amount. “Tush, yet this were somewhat to be borne withal, although the gain is monstrous, but this sufficeth not, for they fill not these sacks full by far, but put into them some two bushels & a half, laying in the mouth of the sack certain great coals, which they call fillers, to make the sack show fair, although the rest be small willow coals and half dross.”
Thus, filler enters the world as the child of conmen, and it carries that air of the spurious with it to this day, even though filler is now used in dozens of more or less honest ways, particularly in packaging and in admixtures to building materials like concrete, which are produced by more or less honest companies – more than seven hundred by Wikipedia’s count.
Interestingly, the rhetoric of literature has never accorded a place to filler. Every reader knows it, but the critics – not the book reviewers, but those working in the higher reaches of theory – lack a theory of filler. Filler is generally dismissed as false weight, or a con; or it is ascribed to sheer incompetence. The closest we come to a theory is in Barthes’ The Reality Effect, which considers that certain items or descriptions in a narrative can be simply remplissage:
“… these authors (among many others) are producing notations which structural analysis, concerned with identifying and systematizing the major articulations of narrative, usually and heretofore has left out, either because its inventory omits all details that are "superfluous" (in relation to structure) or because these same details are treated as "filling" (catalyses), assigned an indirect functional value insofar as, cumulatively, they constitute some index of character or atmosphere and so can ultimately be recuperated by structure.”
Barthes thesis is that this structural angle doesn’t suffice – which makes sense. After all, there must be a dynamic axis that the structure serves.
Barthes notion of the dynamic is a lot like those “game books” for children that are popular in France, where a situation on one page can be resolved either in one way or another, with the suggested solutions leading to different pages – if the dragon is killed, go to page ten, if the dragon eats the knight, go to page 12. Barthes thinks of these solutions as choices, and the narration as a “huge traffic-control center, furnished with a referential (and not merely discursive) tempora1ity.” In other words, narratives do not run on arguments, even if they are allegorical. This makes description into something that either enables the narrative movement or impedes it. However, to continue with the traffic metaphor, traffic can slow down either according to the rules, with stop signs, or because of other encumbrances – the quantity of cars on a given route, an accident, a slow driver, etc. We are still, in other words, far from a total theory of filler.
What Barthes does see beautifully is that descriptions have an internal teleology of their own, which he traces back to the Greek tradition of the “beautiful”. There are epochs in which the beautiful is elevated above the dynamic of the text – there is a whole tradition, from the Alexandrian school to the Renaissance, in which emblematic descriptions, regardless of their referential fit in the text, would be inserted in the narrative. In our day, this has become the easy out for reviewing novels: find the beautiful passage. On his off days, James Wood, the NYer reviewer, plays the part of little Jack Horner, taking out plums from the books he is reviewing favorably, with nary a comment about how the “beautiful writing” works. Myself, I am as touristic as anybody else, and do like me a postcard phrase. But I do know that the trip is not made to pick up postcards, and that generally, pretty writing – at least of the Wood type – is often the mark of a pisspoor novel. You gots to scratch it, you gotta rough it up, you gotta mock it – such is the fate of beautiful writing in this fallen world.
Nevertheless, due perhaps to the reviewer attention to beautiful writing and the notion that the novel, like the product of a microbrewery, is a matter of craft, filler becomes something other than waste or deception. Yet, in as much as it exists within a narrative, it cannot escape being part of the traffic.
That double function produces something Barthes doesn’t talk about much: suspense.
Suspense is attached to genre fiction, but it is encoded in the very model of narrative as a decision tree. Although prose may aspire to some ideal simultaneity, it bears the burden of its own material elaboration in time in the hunched trudge to the end – for the text ends. One of the key facts about a narrative is that it has, at least as a finished product, a beginning and ending. This means that it takes up a certain amount of time to read. For those who hate reading (and all of us hating reading at one point or another) the prospect of this amount of time is irritating, or even unbearable. The time that it takes to read x cannot be recuperated, or exchanged. The equation of time and reading is an enormous fact that impinges on all the sites of reading – classrooms, libraries, the internet, etc. And the common funny phrase that I wasted x amount of time on reading it that I can’t get back is, actually, not funny at all, but a cold fact. You won’t get it back. Whether it was a waste or not.
This perception of reading is internalized in texts in terms of suspense. In police procedurals and mysteries, it is not just that the chaser is frustrated by the ruses of the chased, the police detective by the criminal – but it is also the case that a certain amount of filler must be passed through. The filler has a secondary character – it lends color, it informs (this function is more and more important) – but its primary effect is to impede.
You can’t have suspense without filler, which stand in relation one to the other like the tickle to the tickler. And in its supreme form, in a novel like, say, Ulysses, where the suspense is not so much about chaser and chased, but about – among other things – a man avoiding confronting the love affair of his wife – the quantity of filler is so increased that the book becomes about it, about where it takes place in time and space. That it is constructed in terms of a reference to the myth of Ulysses and Homer’s poem releases the enormous work of having gotten this filler right – the work of research – from the category of the beautiful and gives it back to the mythopoetic, or to history, as it were. It is in this sense that Ulysses is connected like no other novel to everything that went before it and everything that came after it.