In her essay Modern Fiction, Virginia Woolf comes close to pinning down that elusive quality that is the difference between a novel that may be well constructed, even beautifully written, but that lacks life or spirit, that essential thing that wakes us up with a blow to the head:
“[The novel] fails because of the comparative poverty of the writer’s mind, we might say simply and have done with it. But it is possible to press a little further and wonder whether we may not refer our sense of being in a bright yet narrow room, confined and shut in, rather than enlarged and set free, to some limitation imposed by the method as well as the mind. Is it the method that inhibits the creative power? Is it due to the method that we feel neither jovial nor magnanimous, but centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates what is outside itself and beyond.”
I should think that of the contemporary fiction I abandon, most of it is due to this suffocating quality.