I recently purchased 3 Harlequin novels for .25 cents apiece for a 27 yr. old Phd student from S. Korea. He hired me to tutor him in English and he requested romance novels-- come to find out, as I had him read from them aloud, the Harlequins do not meet much of a standard for good writing. The sentences get strung out and confusing, so in the long-run they wouldn't be much help to him to learn English.
What I like about the historical romances, as you've said, the women always have grit and they defy the rules of society. They've got balls. Unlike, say, Jane Austen's Emma, where she adhered to all the rules and did a lot of fretting in between before her romantic aspirations worked out.
In the Christian authors approach the women are always in a "helping" profession; secretary, librairian, elementary school teacher. They're never power houses of personality except when it comes to, what else, running the home. Sure, the good Christian husband ends up changing the diapers, but that's about as advanced as it gets.
I'd definitley put James Patterson under trash. Talk about formulaic writing. I stopped reading his novels a while ago because the greusome level rose with every new book.
I agree with you about reading for knowledge and pleasure and not to impress. Amen to that.