Sympathetic, Generous … and Tough

One of CanLit’s backstage producers revealed.

It has been customary for some time to refer to the period of literary activity that began in this country in the late 1950s, gathered momentum in the 1960s and flourished for some twenty years or so after that, as the “Canadian Renaissance.” The leading writers who came to prominence at that time are now well known—at least to those who are interested in such matters. But we are only gradually coming to understand the cultural background to that movement and to recognize the people behind the scenes, as it were, who made it possible. The contributions of Jack McClelland, publisher extraordinaire, and George Woodcock, tireless commentator and first editor of Canadian Literature, are now acknowledged. That of Malcolm Ross, organizer and first general editor of the New Canadian Library, is not so well known, although Janet B. Friskey’s book on the subject is scheduled to appear almost simultaneously with the volume under review. But the crucial role played by Robert Weaver, even though understood and appreciated by the writers of the period, is barely recognized by the general public. Along with the connected CBC Radio Ideas program aired in October 2007, this admirable tribute to a “wonderfully talented, energetic, and modest man” who, like Ross, never stepped into the limelight, should now remedy the situation.

Robert Weaver: Godfather of Canadian Literature is no standard formal biography, however. Elaine Kalman Naves is a journalist (in the best sense of that rather fluid term), and she has made no attempt to delve deeply into obscure archives. Indeed, her book is the product of extended interviews: with Weaver himself, with many of the surviving writers whose careers he nurtured, and with Eric Friesen, the CBC veteran broadcaster who was Weaver’s youthful boss during his later years with the corporation. What she offers is a multifaceted collage that may be unconventional, but that proves highly appropriate for a presentation of this particular man and the many areas in which he worked.

The book is divided into three parts. The first, presented in three chapters, is most clearly biographical in emphasis, and comes close to qualifying as a personal memoir. It covers Weaver’s early years in Niagara Falls and Toronto, his apparently undistinguished war service at Kingston (“I could never fire a rifle that could harm anybody but people standing right beside me”) and his university years, when extracurricular literary activities meant more to him than the academic training. A quite detailed account follows of his years at CBC Radio, where he organized the Canadian Short Stories and Anthology programs, as well as the main facts about his activities as chief editor of the Tamarack Review, his subsequent inauguration of the CBC Literary Competition and his extensive achievements as an anthologist. Given his reserved nature, it is hardly surprising that we hear little about his domestic life with his wife and children. This is almost exclusively the biography of a career—or, more accurately, of a series of careers.

The second section presents a composite version of the hitherto unused material from the Weaver interviews and is of as much interest for the people he talks about as for a revelation of his own character. Up to this point Naves, in her own words, “let Weaver speak for himself as much as possible.” The third section, however, reproduces a series of interviews with other writers: Margaret Atwood, Barry Callaghan, Robert Fulford, Alice Munro, Alistair MacLeod and Janice Kulyk Keefer, as well as Friesen. The book is illustrated by many evocative photographs (courtesy of the Weavers) and photographic reproductions of letters both to and from Weaver. As a whole the book constitutes, you might say, a rich anthology of images and voices.

Weaver’s achievements can now be seen in clear focus. The Tamarack Review, which ran from 1956 until 1982, was the foremost Canadian literary periodical of its time. Although Naves describes it, accurately, as “a hands-on cottage industry, with everyone allotted a job,” it can reasonably be described as the first such product in the country to transcend the “little magazine” category. It was smartly designed, attractively produced and even paid its contributors—modestly, to be sure, but as Barry Callaghan remarks, “the professional gesture was made.” Above all, its standards were high, as is evident when one looks over individual issues with the gift of hindsight. The first, for example, included among its contributors Margaret Avison, Timothy Findley (making his debut as a writer), Jay Macpherson, Brian Moore and Ethel Wilson. The second published George Johnston, Alice Munro, James Reaney, Mordecai Richler and A.J.M. Smith. Of all these, only Smith and Wilson could be said to be well established at the time, with Reaney and Richler well on the way. The rest were virtually unknown.

At the CBC, Weaver managed to double the length of the Canadian Short Stories feature to half an hour, and went out across Canada to find and nurture young Canadian talent. For instance, Norman Levine, one of whose best-known stories is “We All Start in a Little Magazine,” was first encouraged, by Weaver, to submit his work for broadcasting. Later, when Weaver launched Anthology (which eventually became a program lasting a full hour), the list of participants expanded to such an extent that, as Naves writes, it “reads like a lexicon of Canadian literature.” Several of the eminent writers interviewed in the third section wonder if they could ever have succeeded in establishing themselves if it had not been for “Bob.”

As Canadian writing developed, Weaver launched out further as anthologist, in print as well as on the air waves, with five series of short story collections (always his first love), plus The Oxford Book of Canadian Short Stories in English (co-edited by Atwood), and also co-edited the broader Oxford Anthology of Canadian Literature with William Toye. The CBC Literary Competition, begun in 1979, continued the crusade—differently, in response to different conditions—into the new millennium. What Robert Fulford describes here as the “Weaver Effect” had an incalculable and cumulative impact upon the production of accomplished literature in this country.

As a man, Weaver appears to be a curious and successful combination of sympathy, generosity and toughness. Everyone interviewed here speaks fondly of the interest he took in them, and he is believed to have occasionally bought material that he did not intend to use because he knew that the author in question urgently needed the money. At the same time, his artistic standards were high, and he was not afraid of being bluntly critical if he thought it was in the author’s best interests. Apparently he told Austin Clarke that “you’re no poet,” and he certainly declared to the young Alice Munro that one of the stories she had sent him “failed to rise above somewhat commonplace and tedious material.” Moreover, he could react firmly when he felt that a writer was overstepping the mark. Once, after a barrage of verse submissions from Al Purdy, he replied: “Dear Al, / I have enough poems for the moment so lay off and I’ll get in touch with you as soon as I can. / Sincerely …” He firmly believed that his writers could produce work of the highest quality and would not be fobbed off with the second best.

But what of Weaver’s legacy? Naves asks the question of most of her interviewees (which means, incidentally, that the book gets a little repetitious toward the end). The majority seem optimistic, content to reminisce about the bad old days before he appeared, implying that his torch was being carried on. I am not so sure. By chance, when this book arrived for review, I was listening to classical music on CBC’s officially commercial-free Radio 2. As I was leafing through the book in an endeavour to get a preliminary “feel” of it, the program was interrupted by a plug for one of its later features that day that ranked with the most nauseating ads on local pop stations. Now, alas, this is a regular occurrence.

There was once a time—Weaver’s time—when the CBC saw its function to be the education and elevation of public taste. Not any more; now it seems all too eager to adapt itself to the more vulgar elements in its audience. This trend has gotten decidedly worse since its new policies were instituted some nine months ago. Yet of the interviewees, only Janice Kulyk Keefer addresses the situation when she laments “what I perceive to be the dumbing down of a lot of radio programs compared to standards as I remember them when the CBC was so important to me.” Exactly. Under the new dispensation, it looks as if Weaver’s standards and ideals are being increasingly eroded and may ultimately be betrayed.

Still, the files of the Tamarack Review are available in libraries, and most people curious enough to have read this review through to its close are likely to have on their shelves a number of books, good books, that would never have been written if Robert Weaver had not produced some desperately needed cash at a moment of crisis, first printed or broadcast a story that is a staple of what, in a combination of affection and belittlement, we now tend to refer to as CanLit, or just uttered words of genuine encouragement that helped a struggling genius to keep going. This is an achievement that cannot be gainsaid, and its effects are still with us. Future improvements could still develop as the result of his example. Perhaps that is legacy enough.