Some Thoughts on Social Media and Dominick Dunne

I’m told that to be a successful author, I should have a strong presence on the Internet.  I’m told that my public persona—as broadcast via social media—matters nearly as much as the quality of my books.  I don’t argue these points.  They’re probably right.

And yet . . . I have trouble acting on them.  This blog is largely barren, and my other social media accounts are scenes of halting, sporadic activity.  Think Old Faithful at one-quarter strength.

I am not the first author to publicly worry over the need to participate in social media.  Many of us fail at it.  The skills of a novelist correlate to those of a successful blogger (or tweeter, or whatever) as directly as those of a long-distance runner and a basketball star.  Even so, I suspect that aptitude is not the major impediment for novelists struggling with social media.  Most daunting to many—myself at least—is the idea of presenting yourself directly to the world, as one must do on social media, even when satirizing The Bachelor.  Novelists have much to say about the world, but we do it from a distance, in the clothing of made-up characters.  You could say that this ability to comment from a distance is the precise reason that many of us became novelists.  Otherwise, we might be essayists.

All of which is to say that developing a public persona isn’t something I relish.  But I’m resolved to try, beginning here.  Beginning with Dominick Dunne.

The novels of Dominick Dunne are not highly praised feats of literature, but he is a hero of mine, largely for the persona he projected off the page.  Dunne wrote compulsively readable books about scandalous doings among the rich.  They go down easy.  There’s a certain mischievousness about them.  And the knowledge that some are fictionalized treatments of real-life events—like the murder of Martha Moxley—adds a layer of voyeuristic titillation that I’m not above indulging.  Another City, Not My Own, his not-at-all veiled account of the O.J. Simpson trial, is stuffed with jaw-dropping celebrity gossip.

But there is more to his work than froth.  Much of his fiction is animated by a palpable anger at the ability of the privileged to get away with all manner of crimes.  That anger came from a personal well:  the killing of his daughter Dominique (who starred in Poltergeist) by an abusive ex-boyfriend, John Sweeny.  Sweeny received only six and a half years on a conviction of manslaughter, leaving Dunne enraged at the judge who had excluded testimony from another ex-girlfriend.  Dunne wrote an article about the experience for Vanity Fair, which launched his long career at the magazine.  In that article and for years to follow, Dunne mercilessly detailed the foibles of the judge (who, during the trial, asked a People photographer into his chambers and tried on multiple pairs of glasses, asking which best showed his eyes), and took great pleasure in his declining legal career.

He delighted in revealing his enemies to the world, but the admirable thing about Dunne was his willingness to do the same to himself.  As in this story about Frank Sinatra:

It’s a funny story, it gets laughs.  But as a former Vanity Fair colleague has noted, the degree of honesty also makes the audience nervous.  However pleasant the wrapping, it takes courage to deliver the point:  “I was the amusement for [Sinatra], and my humiliation was his fun.”

That story appears in a documentary, After the Party, in which Dunne indicts himself with similarly honest stories of his failure at marriage, his drug use, and his aborted first career as a movie producer.  In After the Party, he says:  “The reasons I can write assholes so well is that I used to be an asshole.”  Dunne would not have called his self-analysis brave.  But it is, and it makes the documentary fascinating, and after watching it for a while, you are not surprised to learn that the diminutive Dunne, whose father called him a “sissy,” earned a medal for bravery in WWII.

The other wonderful, and perhaps unexpected, attribute of Dunne’s was his generosity of spirit.  I say unexpected because Dunne was a self-admitted social climber.  And yet, when the documentary captures him in front of a starlet’s house, Dunne clearly savors a mini-reunion with a paparazzo who did not even presume that Dunne would remember him.

I received a small glimpse of this quality myself.  Working as a reporter in D.C., I finagled my way into an assignment covering one of his speeches.  My first book was still on the way, but I had no illusion that would be of any interest to Dunne.  My expectations in that regard had been corrected when, a short time earlier, I had approached a popular YA author for a chat, with the naïve assumption that my new status as a published writer of fiction had granted me a key to an exclusive fellowship of untold bonhomie.  The cold, unimpressed look I received in reaction to my introduction told me just how wrong I was.

I simply wanted to hear Dunne talk.  I did, and he was highly entertaining.  And then he permitted me a question or two afterword.  And then, left alone in a wash of people more interested in the Washington power players attending the event, he began asking me about myself.  I told him that I was a fan of his, and then I mentioned my upcoming book.

His face lit up.  He wanted to talk all about it.  I had trouble processing the seemingly genuine interest from a writer I so admired, and I am very thankful to him for that.

Dominick Dunne died in 2009.  He wrote only 17 entries on his Twitter page.  But I think, had he been from another generation, he would have embraced social media with his characteristic enthusiasm.  I expect he would not have been tortured in the least by the thought of putting himself out there.  In that respect, and others, I’ll try to follow his example.

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