As a consumer, it's entirely possible to lap up what's on offer without giving it a second thought. Consider the so-called personal recommendations you get on Amazon or Netflix or even Ocado. As it happens, the novelty in the 'new' is preciously rare. What consumers get are the products of commercial decisions made by some pretty risk-averse individuals far removed from the creative process. We have to forgive them: it's their job. But if we want genuine inspiration from the arts and innovation from products and services, we need to act smart. This is how.
I used to buy a new book without thinking about what it took to get it picked up and published. It's only when I wrote my own memoir, Bird's Milk, that I learned about the inner works of the publishing industry. Every book (and every TV series and every play performed on stage) is a product of a formulaic set-up. True, it all begins with an idea and some often masochistic creative genius who works hard to bring that idea to life. Most creatives follow their own calling and write what's important to them. It's because it's pretty hard to keep going otherwise and tinker with something you care little about. Then a book or a script lands with an agent who must sell it to a publisher or a TV executive. It's at this stage that a script becomes "Fleabag meets Gossip Girl" or "Pride and Prejudice set in Pakistan". Publishing and show business are inherently risky industries where many fail and money is made from rare hits. The works that get picked up are usually those which can be compared best to previous success stories. No heads would roll if you commission something which looked like the next Game of Thrones.
The same happens in non-creative industries where similarly risk-averse decision makers rule on which new products will be displayed on Tesco shelves, which start-ups will get funded and which projects will get backed. The fastest growing early stage businesses this year are on-demand grocery delivery startups because why fund a climate-crisis solution when you can pop more money into the pockets of Getir, Dija, Kavall, Gorillas or Weezy? This year alone investors ploughed hundreds of millions into these highly unoriginal ventures. The irony of this 'comparable' thinking is that Deliveroo is yet to make a profit while marketing identical services to consumers will erase even the possibility of breaking even.
In the world where commercial decisions are so dependent on comparables and formulas it is a wonder that we get to consume anything genuinely original. Truly original art and products are nearly impossible to sell. This is precisely why creators from underrepresented backgrounds are finding it hard to break through: their stories are too different from what commissioning editors are used to and the problems their startups aim to tackle are too obscure for the average Etonian investor.
The fact that we now read and watch stories by Black writers is a testament to their perseverance and to the progress we as a society are making towards giving everyone an equal opportunity. Some of the recently published novels like Luster by Raven Leilani are groundbreaking. Earlier this summer I went to the Kiln theatre to see a play called Reasons You Should(n't) Love Me written and performed by Amy Trigg. It was about a twentysomething woman navigating work, love, friendships and spina bifida in a wheelchair. The show was remarkably humorous, tender and uplifting, and it made me look at the world from an entirely different point of view of a person who doesn't need my pity or help, but my understanding and empathy. The play came to stage because Amy Trigg won the Women's Prize for Playwriting in 2020 and Paines Plough, a theatre company dedicated to new writing, helped to produce it. It wasn't Chekhov or Shakespeare - it was modern, relevant and incredibly inspiring.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to us, consumers. It's up to us to signal what we like and want more of. You can either binge on the truly terrible revival of the Gossip Girl or head to the West End to see a play just because of its celebrity cast. Or you can challenge yourself to see something new and possibly uncomfortable and if you like it - make sure you tell everyone about it.
The same goes to products and services we use every day. Try Oddbox for fruit and vegetables delivery, Rubies in the Rubble for ketchup and mayo, switch to sustainable energy providers, buy an electric or a hybrid car and, for goodness sake, don't get involved with fast grocery delivery apps - use your money to shape the world you want to live in.