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Randy Fertel is a writer and philanthropist dedicated to the arts, education, New Orleans, and the environment. Fertel holds a Ph.D. in English and American literature from Harvard University and is the author of A Taste for Chaos: The Art of Literary Improvisation and The Gorilla Man and the Empress of Steak: A New Orleans Family Memoir. Fertel has taught English at Harvard University, Tulane University, LeMoyne College, and the New School for Social Research. He specializes in the literature of the Vietnam War and the literature of exile. In addition to his writing, Fertel is president of the Fertel Foundation and the Ruth U. Fertel Foundation, named for his mother Ruth Fertel, founder of Ruth’s Chris Steak House. He lives in New Orleans and New York.
cover of A Taste of Chaos with art by Alan Gerson
The Art of Literary Improvisation
Second, revised edition
Paperback original, 500 pages, $28
ISBN: 978-0-88214-987-5
Kindle/Apple Books edition, $9.99
ISBN: 978-0-88214-993-6

The arc of Western civilization has always driven toward mastering the world through reason, will, craft, and objectivity. Yet shadowing this arc is another that suggests we can know more of the world through non-rational means—through spontaneity, intuition, instinct, and subjectivity. A Taste for Chaos explores this undercurrent of spontaneity in literature and the arts. It identifies a new metagenre where improvisation rules: texts that claim to have been written without effort or craft, like an idea that hits you in the shower, each a challenge to the mainstream, dominant culture. It argues that while once written from the margins, improvisations make up much of the Western Canon’s center: John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Laurence Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, William Wordsworth’s “Tintern Abbey,” Alfred Lord Tennyson’s Idylls of the King, Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Thomas Mann’s Dr. Faustus. It also offers close readings of C. G. Jung’s Red Book and Ian McEwan’s Saturday.
A Taste for Chaos is a stunner of a book—smart, jarring, innovative, witty, provocative, wise, and beautifully written. As a sustained and unified work of literary analysis, this book is nothing short of dazzling, both in its meticulously structured central argument and in its intricate exploration of the artistic tensions between order and disorder, reason and intuition, design and improvisation. Not only is this a book about the artistic endeavor, but it is also a work of art in its own right.
—Tim O’Brien, author of The Things They Carried
Randy Fertel leads us on a brilliant literary exploration of improvisation and the art of appearing spontaneous. From Louis Armstrong to Derrida, Twain to Jung to Joyce, he shows how order emerges from chaos. It’s a delightful and fascinating book, written with a jazz-like enthusiasm.
  —Walter Isaacson, CEO, Aspen Institute; author of The Innovators, Steve Jobs, and Leonardo da Vinci
An inquisitive examination of the impulse that yields literary improvisation—which is to say, literature itself … A smart blend of psychology, philosophy and literary history … A tour de force of reading in the fields of literary theory and history befitting a George Steiner or Erich Auerbach.
Kirkus Review
In A Taste for Chaos Randy Fertel takes us deep into the substrata of the literary imagination and the creative process, linking such seemingly disparate minds as James Joyce’s and Louis Armstrong’s. It’s a fascinating exposition of the mysteries and benefits of improvisation.
—Bruce Boyd Raeburn, Curator of the Hogan Jazz Archive, Tulane University; author of New Orleans Style and the Writing of American Jazz History