As CBC Radio s top literary scout and buyer, an editor, critic, anthologist and best friend Canadian writers ever had, Robert Weaver is Culture’s man for all seasons. He knows what’s best — even if sometimes he doesn’t like it
ROBERT WEAVER, On a bar stool at the Four Seasons, gives an impression of having wandered in by error, unknowing and
unconcerned that this Toronto bar, being across the street from CBC headquarters, is the milieu of Canada’s minicelebrities. His wardrobe and mien are all wrong. Humped over beer and a mystery novel, he has the robustness, the innocent air, eyeglasses, tweed jacket and haircut of a man styled in Drumheller, Alberta. He seems numb to Adrienne Clarkson, beautifully gliding by, or Norman DePoe, in a jacket of sea-green velvet, holding court in one corner, or Bruno Gerussi, just as gorgeous, who is able to play to his own table and also project across the room to the prettier disciples of Patrick Watson. While all about him intrigues are being born and reputations interred, this guy keeps on reading.
Actually, Robert Weaver is listening and appreciating everything he hears. He has a finer sense of the way it is in the mixed-up, mini-worlds of Canadian mass communication, arts and letters than anyone else in that bar. Weaver is the middleman of Canadian culture, the one to connect with if you’re cultivated enough to be eligible for a publisher, a spot on CBC Tuesday Night, a Governor General’s award or a Canada Council grant to let you do your great Canadian thing in the more salubrious climate of Mexico or Spain. That’s why, when he wants to relax over a drink at the Four Seasons, Weaver brings along a book to discourage conversation. It’s his defense against the prima donnas of broadcasting who, he knows, are as eager for the permanence of print as the Sarah Binkses of the boondocks are to be read by J. Frank Willis over the CBC. The Canadian urge to be
taken seriously, which Weaver understands as well as anyone in this big land, is what afflicts them all, golden boys of the CBC and lonely prairie poets alike.
Robert Weaver is their best hope. As Assistant Radio Network Supervisor, Drama and Special Programs, he’s the CBC’s top buyer of talks, poetry, short stories and dramas. On the side he edits The Tamarack Review, one of the few literary quarterlies anywhere that pays its contributors. (They may have to wait until Weaver negotiates another $10,000 Canada Council grant for Tamarack, but they do get paid.) Then there are the hard-cover anthologies that he edits; he has put together five. His selection of contemporary Canadian short stories, published last October, was “something of a landmark in the history of Canadian literature,” according to the Toronto Daily Star, “for it includes a range of work by writers whose talent he has recognized.” Outside the universities, he’s about the only poetry critic extant; twice a month he alternates between poetry (which he works at appreciating) and mystery novels (which are his meat) in a column for the same Star. He sits on the committee of the Governor General’s awards and is undoubtedly the busiest referee known to the Canada 'Council. It takes letters of recommendation from three authoritative Canadians, called referees, to validate an application for council funds, and on behalf of struggling authors Weaver* writes not merely the most letters but the longest and strongest.
What gives his opinion weight is the man’s extraordinary knowledge of the whole Canadian — not just Toronto — scene. For 20 years Weaver has been a solitary scout, tracking down, keeping in touch with and
encouraging literary talent across Canada by retailing it to the CBC. “His basic approach,” observes Robert Fulford, editor of Saturday Night, “is that the CBC has a responsibility to these people — the poets, the shortstory writers and novelists. He’s a combination of an editor and social worker.” As such, he has been largely responsible for the CBC’s exercising its franchise, as a publicly owned broadcasting system, to serve minority as well as popular tastes. “He’s one of the few men at the CBC who understand the CBC mandate,” according to Nathan Cohen, who began his career as a drama critic for Weaver and would almost immediately have been fired but for Weaver’s intervention. (Cohen’s high standards and even loftier style made top supervisors nervous.)
It was in 1948 that Robert Weaver, then 27, began to bend the CBC to his will. Starting as producer in the Talks and Public Affairs Department, he promptly initiated two series, Critically Speaking and Canadian Short Stories, and soon joined the committee in charge of CBC Wednesday Night (now Tuesday Night), a cultural blockbuster that never pretended to be anything else. He also launched Anthology, a mixed bag of poetry, fiction and interviews, which he nursed from a halfhour show to a full hour on Saturday night at a safe time when Canadians are sated with hockey. Since 1956 his third-floor office in the CBC radio building has also served as the editorial department of Tamarack Review. Untidied at all times by stacks of manuscripts, canned tapes and Weaver’s heavy case-load of authors, it brings to mind Dorothy Parker’s description of The New Yorker establishment, early on, when it was “the slum quarter of a rabbit warren.”
There are many theories about why Weaver has not only survived at the CBC but kept the corporation in line. According to Eugene Hallman, who started shortly after Weaver and who went onward and upward to become Vice-President and General Manager of English Network Broadcasting, Weaver has never demonstrated the “selfdndulgence” that Hallman sees as a fatal flaw in some prime-time TV producers. “For all his self - deprecating ego,” Hallman explains, “he’s not hungry for power — he has turned down promotions that would have taken him away from all those people he helps — and he happens to be one of the best administrators at the CBC.” While believing that “the CBC should be committed to certain values which are not necessarily mass,” Hallman admits that “a lot of this is not by design but by accident. No one at the
top ever quite defined Weaver’s role.” Weaver has far too much humor to see himself as a CBC missionary, spreading light in Canada’s cultural gloom. He has no ambition to replace your favorite sports with AÍ Purdy reading his poetry. Many of Weaver’s own pleasures are as swinish as yours and mine. With a beer by his side and football on the TV, he’s a happy man most weekends from August to January. He much prefers the company of his wife and two young children, a boy and a girl, to the Toronto cultural establishment at play. Once when Cohen asked him to fill in as drama critic for the Toronto Daily Star at a road-company performance of Flower Drum Song, a crummy musical Cohen was too busy to bother about, Weaver came away enchanted. The next morning, after comparing his own long and favorable review with the brief, cut-
ting remarks of Toronto’s two other newspaper critics, he called Cohen to apologize. “You were true to the code of the Star and Cohen,” Cohen stoutly replied. “You wrote what you thought.” Since then, however, Weaver has not been called on to write drama criticism.
He was brought up, a respectable member of the middle class, in Niagara Falls, Ontario, and Toronto. His father, a doctor, died when Robert was seven, and the responsibility for his and his sister’s upbringing was split among their mother, a semi-invalid, grandparents and a clutch of aunts, one of whom, Emily, wrote Canadian history and novels of a high moral tone. From his woman - dominated home life, young Weaver escaped to football, track, movie double - bills (three a week) and books. After high school he worked for two years in a Toronto bank, which he left to do “highly undistinguished” service in the Canadian Army. His buddies in the army called him Muscles, mainly because he was a great reader and was suspected of writing poetry. Later, at the University of Toronto, where he took a degree in philosophy and English, he left off poetry to write book reviews for The Varsity, the campus newspaper, edit a literary magazine and help found a Modern Letters Club. From the university campus, it was a short step to the CBC, where he kept right on retailing literature.
If he arrived at the CBC expecting to peddle culture to a grateful nation, he soon became clear-eyed. “Anthology,” he once informed a CBC supervisor, “is the only network program where the producer knows every listener by his first name.” The supervisor recalled that remark when Weaver returned from his next trip west, where he’d been scouting poetry and short stories for Anthology. “Was your little band out to meet you?” Weaver was asked. “Only in Edmonton,” he answered, “and they met the wrong train.”
Weaver’s two attempts at raising the tone of television (The Business of Books, a summer replacement received with “zero rating,” and Fighting Words) left him content with radio and keenly appreciative of why TV producers, living from one 13-week contract to the next, tend to huddle in the Four Seasons, plotting to rearrange the CBC.
Writers tend to be neurotic, according to Weaver, and he understands why. He has plenty of case histories to prove, for example, that short-story writers, much more than poets, need a touch of lunacy to keep them at their craft. Now that poets are fash-
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ionable, they can earn both money and applause not only from publishing but also from reading their own works in coffeehouses and church halls, on nouveau riche campuses and even on TV, whereas short-story writers must scratch for small fees and driblets of fan mail. Weaver points to Alice Munro, a fine Vancouver writer, who had been producing for years when Weaver included her in his 1960 anthology, thereby giving Earle Birney, the west coast’s leading literary academic, his first intimation of her existence. “If Alice Munro had been a poet,” says Weaver, “her two applications for Canada Council grants would not have been turned down.”
Elelping writers, Weaver has been known to reshuffle the schedule of Anthology to provide work for good but needy writers and he’s notorious for making down payments on unfinished manuscripts. But his social conscience does not interfere with his editorial judgment. Robert Fulford acknowledges: “He has a very fine sense of what’s good, even if he doesn’t happen to like it himself.” Nor are his faculties impaired by fondness for a particular author. When Hugh Garner announced that he had dedicated his collection of short stories, Men And Women, to Weaver, he felt bound to add, “I wish it had been better.” “So do I,” Weaver replied.
Exit tennis-shoe writers
After 20 years in the business of retailing Canadian literature, Weaver does not go along with the little university quarterlies, which are forever lugubrious about the state of our letters. Each year about 2,500 manuscripts arrive at his desk. Until recent years he had to skim through only about a third of them; the big remainder was sad, in the opinion of the woman, herself a writer, who does his preliminary sifting. Now the ratio is reversed; two thirds of the manuscripts are good enough to require his final editorial judgment. “The little lady writers in tennis shoes are disappearing,” says Weaver. “That’s the good effect of Canada’s being such a discouraging place for writers.”
Considering Weaver’s honesty and long, loyal service to Canadian literature, a reporter reasonably expects to uncover some well-turned, waspish comments on the man. But he does not seem to have earned an enemy. Even Nathan Cohen, who normally turns a very cool eye on man and all his creative works, becomes almost misty when he sums up Weaver. “I get sort of choked up,” says Cohen, “when I consider that beautiful man.” □
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