The editor of a book of Nabokov criticism states that Pale Fire excited as diverse criticism as any of Nabokov's novels. Mary McCarthy's review was extremely laudatory; the Vintage edition excerpts it on the front cover. She tried to explicate hidden references and connections. Dwight Macdonald responded by saying the book was "unreadable" and both it and McCarthy's review were as pedantic as Kinbote. Anthony Burgess, like McCarthy, extolled the book, while Alfred Chester condemned it as "a total wreck".
Some other early reviews were less decided, praising the book's satire and comedy but noting its difficulty and finding its subject slight or saying that its artistry offers "only a kibitzer's pleasure". MacDonald called the reviews he had seen, other than McCarthy's, "cautiously unfavorable". TIME magazine's 1962 review stated that "Pale Fire does not really cohere as a satire; good as it is, the novel in the end seems to be mostly an exercise in agility – or perhaps in bewilderment", though this did not prevent TIME from including the book in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-Language novels published since 1923.
In the 1980s, after Nabokov's reputation was rehabilitated in the Soviet Union, the novel was translated into Russian by his wife Véra, its dedicatee.