Nabokov finished Lolita on 6 December 1953, five years after starting it. Because of its subject matter, Nabokov intended to publish it pseudonymously (although the anagrammatic character Vivian Darkbloom would tip off the alert reader). The manuscript was turned down, with more or less regret, by Viking, Simon & Schuster, New Directions, Farrar, Straus, and Doubleday. After these refusals and warnings, he finally resorted to publication in France. Via his translator Doussia Ergaz, it reached Maurice Girodias of Olympia Press, "three quarters of [whose] list was pornographic trash". Underinformed about Olympia, overlooking hints of Girodias's approval of the conduct of a protagonist Girodias presumed was based on the author, and despite warnings from Morris Bishop, his friend at Cornell, Nabokov signed a contract with Olympia Press for publication of the book, to come out under his own name.
Lolita was published in September 1955, as a pair of green paperbacks "swarming with typographical errors". Although the first printing of 5,000 copies sold out, there were no substantial reviews. Eventually, at the very end of 1955, Graham Greene, in the (London) Sunday Times, called it one of the three best books of 1955. This statement provoked a response from the (London) Sunday Express, whose editor John Gordon called it "the filthiest book I have ever read" and "sheer unrestrained pornography." British Customs officers were then instructed by a panicked Home Office to seize all copies entering the United Kingdom. In December 1956, France followed suit, and the Minister of the Interior banned Lolita; the ban lasted for two years. Its eventual British publication by Weidenfeld & Nicolson in London in 1959 caused a scandal that contributed to the end of the political career of one of the publishers, Nigel Nicolson.
The novel then appeared in Danish and Dutch translations. Two editions of a Swedish translation were withdrawn at the author's request.
Despite initial trepidation, there was no official response in the U.S., and the first American edition was issued by G. P. Putnam's Sons in August 1958. The book was into a third printing within days and became the first since Gone with the Wind to sell 100,000 copies in its first three weeks.
The novel continues to generate controversy today as modern society has become increasingly aware of the lasting damage created by child sexual abuse. In 2008, an entire book was published on the best ways to teach the novel in a college classroom given that "its particular mix of narrative strategies, ornate allusive prose, and troublesome subject matter complicates its presentation to students." In this book one author urges teachers to note that Lolita's suffering is noted in the book even if the main focus is on Humbert. Many critics describe Humbert as a rapist, notably Azar Nafisi in her best-selling Reading Lolita in Tehran, though in a survey of critics David Larmour notes that other interpreters of the novel have been reluctant to use that term. Near the end of the novel, Humbert accuses himself of rape; however, after noting this, Nabokov biographer Brian Boyd tries to let Humbert off the hook on the grounds that Dolores was not a virgin and seduced Humbert in the morning of their hotel stay. This perspective is vigorously disputed by Peter Rabinowitz in his essay "Lolita: Solipsized or Sodomized?".
Today, Lolita is considered by many to be one of the finest novels written in the 20th century. In 1998, it came fourth in a list by the Modern Library of the greatest English-language novels of the 20th century.