Dominique Fernandez was born in France on 25 August 1929, at Neuilly-sur-Seine near Paris. He is the son of the Mexican Ramón Fernández, a literary critic whose reputation was tarnished when he served during World War II on the executive committee of the Parti Populaire Français, collaborating with France's Nazi occupiers. He died in 1944. Dominique Fernandez's inaugural speech in the Academy in 2007 was a defence of his father. Fernandez was educated at the Ecole Normale Superieure. He gained a doctorate in Italian literature.
In 1957 and 1958 he taught in Naples at the French Institute, but was recalled after a controversial lecture on Roger Vailland, who had won the Prix Goncourt for his novel La Loi (1957). Fernandez's literary career began in 1958 with a study of the modern Italian novel. He then worked as a literary critic for the weekly, L'Express and as a reader for the publishers Grasset. He holds a regular column in the Swiss magazine of art and culture : Artpassions.
In 1961 he married Diane Jacquin de Margerie; they had two children, Ramon and Laetitia, before their divorce in 1971. From 1966 to 1989 he taught Italian literature at the University of Haute-Bretagne at Rennes. He was then a critic for Le Nouvel Observateur and for an opera periodical.